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 By Ben Pearce

Pochettino and Tottenham can send title statement against Manchester City

At the start of the season, a mouth-watering six-way title fight seemed to be on the cards. Tottenham were certainly aiming to be in contention again after battling Leicester and then Chelsea for the crown in the two previous campaigns.

Sadly, the reality has proved rather different, and this has been one of the least exciting battles ever.

Indeed, if City had retained their 2-0 lead in Saturday's Manchester derby, they would have become the first Premier League club to win the title with six games to spare.

They will have to wait a little longer now, and Pep Guardiola's side are having a wobble, but the end result remains a formality -- it is a question of when, not if, they are crowned English champions.

The challenge for Spurs and the rest of the chasing pack is to ensure that next season's battle is rather more competitive.

Encouragingly, there has already been evidence of a response, with Liverpool and Manchester United both beating the champions-elect in the past eight days -- Liverpool doing so twice, home and away, in the Champions League.

Now it is Tottenham's turn to test themselves against the runaway leaders at Wembley. While the ultimate aim is to compete with them over the course of a season, victory over 90 minutes would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Tottenham handed Pep Guardiola his first defeat in English football.

Spurs have virtually achieved all they can in the Premier League this term, having moved 10 points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea in the battle for Champions League spots. The FA Cup now looks the more important competition for them.

Yet Saturday's clash with City still has significance -- it offers the chance to make an important statement about the club's standing, trajectory and ambitions.

Spurs' players mostly seem to believe they can achieve their dreams with the club and are committed to the cause.

Yet it is hardly ideal that Kyle Walker, who won nothing with the north Londoners and departed last summer in search of silverware, has already collected a League Cup winner's medal and is about to become a Premier League champion.

This time last year, it seemed risky to swap Tottenham for a domestic rival -- there was no guarantee that the grass would be greener elsewhere, in terms of trophies and glory, even if the wages were higher elsewhere.

But Walker's achievements this season might just have drawn some envious glances from some of his former team-mates, even if they would never admit it.

City may only have won one of their last five league matches against Spurs, but December's 4-1 mauling at the Etihad was emphatic -- a thoroughly chastening experience for Tottenham where, ominously, there seemed to be a gulf in class.

Can Tottenham keep up with Manchester City's potent attack?
Can Tottenham keep pace with Manchester City's potent attack?

Guardiola looked like a genius that day, while Mauricio Pochettino appeared naive, his typically gung-ho approach playing right into the hosts' hands as they ruthlessly dissected Spurs' midfield.

But while City remain deadly going forward, it has become clear this month that they can be hurt. Liverpool have just beaten them 5-1 on aggregate over two European legs, sandwiching Manchester United's 3-2 win at the weekend.

Bravery has been rewarded against the champions-elect, so Pochettino will probably feel his tactics in December were justified, and that attack will again be the best form of defence at Wembley on Saturday.

Indeed, he could remind everyone that it was he who inflicted Guardiola's first defeat in English football, and that he did so with an aggressive pressing game as Spurs won 2-0 at White Hart Lane in October 2016.

City have now been undone again after being closed down and forced to defend, so Pochettino could reasonably argue that December's humbling was simply a bad day and a one-off rather than the result of flawed tactics or the start of a new, one-sided dynamic between the clubs.

Spurs have used the same positive approach when beating Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund (twice), Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea this season, and when they went toe-to-toe with Juventus. Their status among the elite is not in doubt. Nor is the overall success of Pochettino's footballing philosophy.

What can be questioned, though, is whether Tottenham can match Man City, the only team who have outclassed them this season, and regain their place as genuine title contenders.

If Spurs can win Saturday's showdown, they can write off December's hiding as an anomalous result and send a clear message that they have no need to fear or envy anyone -- that, with a clean slate in August, they will be back in a position where they have just as much chance of glory next season as any of their domestic rivals.

Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.


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