Pochettino manages expectations but win at City sparks Spurs title talk
On a glorious May evening in 2010, Peter Crouch's late header gave Tottenham the victory at Manchester City that secured their place in the following season's Champions League.
The game was billed as the battle of the Premier League's perennial chokers. Both sides had flattered to deceive in previous seasons; now there was no escape for either team. The last Champions League place had to go to either side. On the night it was visitors who took the honours. Glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur.
Or not quite. While they went on to have a thrilling run to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, City have unquestionably gone on to the greater heights. In the same period that Spurs have achieved little but Europa League football, City have won the Premier League twice, the FA Cup, the League Cup and qualified for the Champions League in each of the past five seasons.
Spurs have lost each of their past five games at the Etihad including a humiliating 6-0 defeat in 2013, another heartbreaking 3-2 loss to a last-minute penalty scored by Mario Balotelli a year before.
While defeat would not be a disaster -- the worst position in which Spurs can end the weekend is fourth -- a victory would put them four points clear of Sunday's opponents and within breathing distance of the title.
At this point of the season, momentum and confidence are a far better indicator of outcomes than the amount of talent on the bench and the momentum and confidence is with the away side this weekend.
Not that Mauricio Pochettino's men will find it easy. Manuel Pellegrini's men will be hurting after their 3-1 home defeat to Leicester last Saturday and their players will have a point to prove. It's hard to imagine a City side playing quite so poorly two weeks in a row but they are unquestionably struggling.
Normally at this point in the season, it is Spurs with the worrying injury list. Thanks to Pochettino's fitness regime -- not to mention a bit of luck -- Tottenham go into the match with only one key man, Jan Vertonghen, missing. If the Austrian defender, Kevin Wimmer, can slot in as well alongside Toby Alderweireld as he did against Watford, Vertonghen's absence might not even be missed.
The home side will have no such luxuries. Star players David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Jesus Navas, Samir Nasri, Wilfried Bony and Eliaquim Mangala are all sidelined and though Vincent Kompany may return, he is hardly likely to fully match fit after such a prolonged absence.
Then there is the problem of the manager. City have undeniably secured a massive coup in landing Pep Guardiola as their manager for next season, but in the process they have created a major problem for their incumbent manager Pellegrini.
Try as he might to convince his players otherwise, Pellegrini is a lame duck manager serving out the past three months of his career at the club. Professional footballers frequently underperform for managers they know are not going to be around the following year.
By contrast, in Pochettino, Spurs have a manager in whom the players believe in. That has been evident for some months now, not least against Watford last Sunday. It wasn't a pretty win but they never stopped believing and grounded out the victory. Winning ugly is just as important as winning pretty.
Better still, Pochettino seems to have his men playing as a team. Too often in the past, they have had one or two world-class footballers playing alongside some rather average ones. Now they have quality in all areas. They have the quality to beat a weakened City; all that is stopping them is the belief.
Pochettino has gone out of his way to manage expectations in recent weeks but three points on Sunday makes his side strong contenders for the title. It would be fascinating to see how he deals with such a scenario.
John Crace is a columnist and feature writer for The Guardian. He is also a THFC season-ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.