Tottenham title challenge still on as Eriksen strikes in win at Crystal Palace
LONDON -- Three thoughts from Tottenham's 1-0 win at Crystal Palace on Wednesday in the Premier League.
1. Eriksen blast keeps Tottenham's title hopes alive
Tottenham Hotspur are not done yet. This was the kind of night that required a bolt from the blue, as Mauricio Pochettino's side struggled for fluency at what is, once more, one of the Premier League's toughest venues to visit. Christian Eriksen provided it 12 minutes from time, and it was the kind of moment that can decide a season. Receiving the ball 25 yards out with few options ahead of him, Eriksen cracked a low, fizzing shot past Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey and changed the entire tone of a nervy night. The gap with leaders Chelsea is back down to just four points, and the title race remains alive.
This had the delicious look of a match between two super-confident sides, and the home team set a brisk pace. Palace's Andros Townsend forced a rash foul from Kyle Walker in the opening minutes, and Joel Ward fizzed a low ball across the 6-yard box with nobody on hand to convert. When Walker fluffed a straightforward back pass, eventually conceding a throw-in, it epitomised an early theme: Palace were forcing Tottenham into mistakes in possession and then looking to commit men forward at speed.
Yet opportunities, despite no shortage of industry from either side, were few in the opening half-hour. Palace's Christian Benteke forced Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris into a save low to the right, while Tottenham, despite growth in dominating possession, were restricted to a series of wayward efforts and a dangerous Eriksen cross that Martin Kelly hacked clear. Tottenham's Victor Wanyama, already booked, was slightly fortunate to receive a final warning from referee Jonathan Moss after hacking down the lively Townsend, but by half-time, energy and athleticism had not been matched by craft and precision.
The second half began on a worrisome note, when Palace centre-back Mamadou Sakho was stretchered off with what looked to be a nasty knee injury after stretching to challenge Harry Kane. Within moments, Tottenham's Dele Alli -- capitalising on the subsequent reshuffle -- side-footed the game's first clear chance wide when he should have converted Walker's cross.
Walker curled just beyond with 25 minutes left as Tottenham, at last, began to look incisive. Eric Dier thumped an unopposed header over the top at the near post, before the otherwise quiet Kane nodded at Hennessey. It was not quite happening for the visitors, but then Eriksen produced something special, and they might just feel anything is possible now.
2. Pochettino substitutions spark Spurs
Tottenham grew stronger as the game went on, and much of the credit must go to Pochettino, who made a double change at half-time and saw his team gradually assume complete control of the midfield.
Withdrawing Wanyama, who was walking a tightrope, was the more obvious of the two moves, but Mousa Dembele, who had been sluggish in possession and too easily targeted by a snappy opposition, was also substituted, and the decision paid off. Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-Min were their replacements and gave Tottenham an edge they had lacked, with Son in particular causing problems running in from the left. Sissoko showed a combative edge, too, and the away side, who had almost appeared in too much of a rush at times, discovered some genuine purpose.
Chances came as a result, and if Tottenham had fallen short here they would have looked back at the moment in the 58th minute when Alli, looking as if he could not miss, fluffed that opportunity to break the deadlock. It was the kind of opening he tends to put away with aplomb, coming from a typically astute late run into the box, but his effort dribbled past the post from a matter of yards, and at that point there was little reason to feel Tottenham would come so close again.
But they kept on coming, and it said plenty that in the latter stages they looked physically superior to a Palace team that had won six of their past eight games and had often outrun their opposition. Pochettino's changes gave Tottenham extra freshness and impetus against opponents who had been given a day less to prepare for the fixture. Not for the first time, his clear thinking reaped rich rewards.
3. Zaha quiet against his admirers
There had been a heavy focus on Wilfried Zaha in the buildup to this fixture, and it was untimely for Palace that much of it centred on a renewed link with Tottenham. Pochettino had tried to sign the winger last summer; there has been speculation that he will try again and that Palace will hold out for a £40 million fee.
"He needs to stay here and play every week and be the key man to Crystal Palace getting better and better," manager Sam Allardyce said on the eve of the game, but the reason Zaha should be so attractive to Tottenham was clear enough here. That, initially at least, was more down to what the visitors did not do than any particularly effective play by their reported target.
If Tottenham lack anything, it is the kind of ball-carrying, speedy wide man who can take a team on in tight games like this when their spells of possession too often seemed laboured. Palace, on the other hand, have two players who fit into that bracket, and the other -- Tottenham old boy Townsend -- was livelier for long periods here. Townsend teed up that half-chance for Benteke early on and also lashed one of Palace's better efforts over the bar just before the break. There were good reasons for his departure from White Hart Lane last year, but it would not be a stretch to say that, certainly as a squad option, Tottenham have not replaced him adequately.
Perhaps Zaha will be the man to do that, although this was not his most effective performance in a superb Palace run that's seen him be influential. Starting on the right but switching flanks with Townsend during the first half -- a little surprisingly, as Townsend had troubled Walker in the opening minutes -- Zaha clipped one useful ball over for James McArthur, but the midfielder could not connect properly with his volley.
The Palace wingers continued to threaten but were unable to carve out an opening of note in the second half. By the end, Tottenham were much the better side, but it was possible to see how a player of Zaha's ilk might just improve them in tough assignments like this.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.