FA Cup third-round weekend will be a relative break for some Premier League clubs. While not overlooking their opponents (possibly lower-league ones), the change in competition can act as a brief respite from the relentless grind of league play.
That is not the case for Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City who meet on Sunday.
It is not only an extremely tricky opener for either to negotiate if they are to go on a Cup run. It is also a match that plays into a Premier League top-four narrative that sees them meet again at White Hart Lane three days later on Wednesday.
With Leicester's surprise charge to the top of the league and Tottenham's strong form too, their 1-1 draw in August feels like a long time ago now.
Dele Alli gave a subpar Spurs side an 81st-minute lead only for them to blow it straight after. Riyad Mahrez capped a fine display by weaving in from the flank and earning the ascendant Foxes a much-deserved point.
Although it was not clear then that Leicester would progress as well as they have, Spurs at least were certainly aware of their toughness.
They had to battle to earn their two Premier League wins over a then-struggling City team last season. Those victories came on either side of a shoddy defensive effort in the FA Cup fourth round in which late Leonardo Ulloa and Jeffrey Schlupp goals cancelled out Andros Townsend's earlier penalty (looking back further, Spurs also lost in 2006 in the clubs' last third-round meeting).
Leicester have not won any of their three games since Christmas but will not be underestimated by a respectful but confident Tottenham.
"We just need to keep this mentality where we think we can go to any ground and win," midfielder Eric Dier told the club's official website this week. "As well as that, we’ll look to keep working hard as we’ve been doing to try to get as high up the table as possible."
City are also backing themselves to maintain their overall form this season. Albeit they too are not sure how far it will take them.
“I am not sure yet what we can achieve," defender Danny Simpson said this week, per his club's website. "It is a crazy league this season, but we know if we prepare right and do what we can going into every game we want to win."
With changes to both startling XIs likely, though, just how this game specifically plays out remains very much unclear.
Date: Sunday, January 10
Time: 4 p.m. GMT/11 a.m. ET
Venue: White Hart Lane, London
TV Info: BBC One (U.K. only)/Fox Sports 1 (U.S. only)
Live Stream: No UK stream/Fox Sports Go (U.S. only)
|Tottenham and Leicester's Last Five Results|
|Tottenham Hotspur||Leicester City|
|Premier League, January 3: Everton (A)—Draw: 1-1||Premier League, January 2: Bournemouth (H)—Draw: 0-0|
|Premier League, December 28: Watford (A)—Win: 1-2||Premier League, December 29: Manchester City (H)—Draw: 0-0|
|Premier League, December 26: Norwich City (H)—Win: 3-0||Premier League, December 26: Liverpool (A)—Loss: 1-0|
|Premier League, December 19: Southampton (A)—Win: 0-2||Premier League, December 19: Everton (A)—Win: 2-3|
|Premier League, December 13: Newcastle United (H)—Loss: 1-2||Premier League, December 14: Chelsea (H)—Won: 2-1|
|Both clubs' official websites|
Tottenham Hotspur @SpursOfficial
ICYMI: A couple of players are close to a return & full team news ahead of our FA Cup tie - https://t.co/U5aQcxDu0X https://t.co/2xwlqGUzxP1/8/2016, 8:30:47 PM
Ryan Mason has joined Mousa Dembele, Clinton Njie and Alex Pritchard on the sidelines for Tottenham.
Head coach Mauricio Pochettino describes the former two as "very close" to returning and also hopes Pritchard will be back training with the first team again shortly. Leicester City noted Ranieri's confirmation regarding upcoming changes:
Leicester City @LCFC
Claudio Ranieri has confirmed #lcfc are set for a number of changes for #TotLei: https://t.co/bAFPjWG0pr https://t.co/Svvz6ozSph1/8/2016, 4:48:27 PM
Leicester are without striker Jamie Vardy, while Jeffrey Schlupp also remains absent. Matty James is nearing a return but is expected to miss this one.
New signing Demarai Gray is in contention for Claudio Ranieri's team.
Pochettino and Ranieri must both decide whether to use this match as an opportunity to hand playing time to squad players not so much involved recently. Or if the prospect of playing the other again days later with important points at stake requires their regular starters to try to strike an early blow.
Of course, it is possible for both to occur. Going by how each has deployed its resources in Cup competition so far this season, there will likely be at least some overlap here. Ranieri has indeed suggested he will go for "a blend of players," per Leicester's official website.
The predicted teams set out above edges more toward substantial rotation occurring (though again, do not be shocked if it goes the other way).
Goalkeeper Michel Vorm has not played for Tottenham since September. It is hard to blame Pochettino for not wanting to drop the reliably brilliant Hugo Lloris, but a day off would do no harm given he will be called on plenty more before the season is out.
Kevin Wimmer is another not to have featured too much this season. Sunday is a good opportunity to test the Austrian against domestic competition. With Federico Fazio seemingly completely out of favour, right-sided Toby Alderweireld would likely be selected to provide better balance at centre-back.
Kieran Trippier will almost certainly be in at right-back. Like it has nearly all season, left-back could go either way between Ben Davies and Danny Rose.
Nabil Bentaleb has had to bide his time on the sidelines but should be called on here. Eric Dier has been a go-to guy in several competitions and may partner the Algerian in central midfield. Heung-min Son could get the nod up top to allow Harry Kane some rest.
Nacer Chadli is likely to be deployed in support of the South Korean, perhaps along with youngster Josh Onomah and Tom Carroll (the latter is also able to switch with Bentaleb in the event he is selected).
Veteran 'keeper Mark Schwarzer was deputised for Kasper Schmeichel in all three of Leicester's Capital One Cup games this season. If Ranieri mixes things up this weekend he could likely be back again.
Centre-backs Yohan Benalouane and Marcin Wasilewski also covered in that competition and could be called on again. Like Spurs, the Foxes have a little room for manoeuvring at full-back. At the least Ritchie De Laet will hope to come in for Simpson at right-back.
Gokhan Inler missed out against Bournemouth after starting the draw with Manchester City. He should almost certainly be in midfield, though his partner is harder to guess (Andy King is the man in this XI).
Swansea City loanee Nathan Dyer should also get a rare start out on left wing. Marc Albrighton may be one of those retained to provide some continuity and allow others a rest.
Striker Andrej Kramaric will be desperate for a chance to impress with the top scorer out. Ulloa seems the most likely starter even if the rest of the team turns out more recognisable to the league line-up.
Tottenham Hotspur Player to Watch: Nabil Bentaleb
The second half of 2015 was as frustrating for Bentaleb as the first half was good.
After the reward of a new contract in the summer, injury denied him the chance to rectify a sluggish start to the new season. Since recovering he has featured only once (against Monaco) and has had to watch on as others have made hay in his absence.
If he is selected against Leicester, it will be a vital moment for Bentaleb to reassert his own credentials.
To remind Pochettino of his ability to match up as the best similarly competitive midfield counterpart. And to show he is a more mature performer—less liable to the losses of concentration that have undermined him in the past.
Leicester City Player to Watch: Leonardo Ulloa
Like Bentaleb, Ulloa is another battling to get close to the highs of last season. Unlike the Tottenham midfielder, the striker does not have the excuse of injury denying him opportunities.
Ulloa has made 16 appearances but has scored just once. While the good form of Vardy and Shinji Okazaki has meant many have come off the bench, he will still be unsatisfied at not producing more (especially seeing how well he did in a comparatively struggling side last year).
Against Bournemouth a golden chance went begging after a piece of poor control in the box. Playing the side he helped see off in the FA Cup last year, Ulloa must be more clinical if he gets another good sight of goal.
Key Battle: Making the Rotation Work
We have discussed it plenty already, so will not labour the point much further. But if Pochettino and Ranieri do make several changes to their respective teams this game could be decided by which team's back-up and fringe players make the most of their playing time.
Ideally, neither club will want to see this contest taken to a replay. Yet while the Premier League may be shaping up as a priority for both, neither side's boss will accept a half-hearted effort either. A win is a win, and for those not playing so much right now, this will be a must-grab shot to earn more involvement in the months to come.