Tottenham's Title Tilt Enters New Phase as Attentions Turn to White Hart Lane

Sam RookeFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

Tottenham's Christian Eriksen, left, celebrates  with Harry Kane after scoring his side’s second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur's at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super/Associated Press

It has been accepted wisdom for a number of weeks that Tottenham Hotspur are title contenders. 

In prediction pieces and statistical analyses, Spurs have generally been included alongside Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester City as having a chance of winning the Premier League, but few have given them a realistic chance of doing so. 

The youth and inexperience of both the Tottenham manager and his squad were the primary doubts. After their rugged 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, though, Spurs are no longer the dark horse. 

Leicester's defeat at the hands of title rivals Arsenal has served to, at least partially, shred the fig leaf obscuring Spurs' quietly confident campaign. 

Until now, attention had mostly been paid to Claudio Ranieri's fantastic Foxes and not to Mauricio Pochettino's comparably impressive side. That is no longer the case. 

Tottenham benefited from a hugely controversial penalty decision in their victory over Manchester City but that should notand largely hasn'ttake away from their overall performance. 

Lacking the polish of the 4-1 victory in the reverse fixture, this was a display of the grit that is synonymous with champions.

The stakes in this match were significant. Defeat would have seen Spurs slip to fourth, remaining five points from ladder-leading Leicester but also falling behind Arsenal and Manchester City. 

Tottenham's title hopes would have rested upon outperforming each of their three title rivals over the final 12 matches. 

Jon Super/Associated Press

With victory, Spurs' hopes remain largely in their own hands. 

Shortly after Tottenham claimed their 2-1 win, no less reputable an institution than the BBC published a piece entitled "Why Spurs can win the title." 

The season began with questions over the thinness of Spurs' squad. With Harry Kane and Clinton Njie as the only first-team strikers available, it appeared a crucial weakness that has, so far, been overcome. 

Recent weeks have in fact demonstrated that Tottenham possess one of the deepest squads in the division. That Pochettino was able to call Tom Carroll, Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli from the bench against City proved as much. 

Each played their part in Spurs' latest victory; none more so than Lamela who laid on Christian Eriksen's winning goal. 

Concerns over the apparent absence of a specialist defensive midfielder have proved similarly mistaken with the swift evolution of Eric Dier. The cat is now very much out of the bag, and with this realisation will come a new kind of pressure. 

No longer are Tottenham dismissed as outsiders in the title race, and they could even be tagged as the favourites before long. 

The story of this season will quickly switch from Leicester's unlikely championship to Spurs breaking their 55-year first division title drought. 

There are two weeks until Spurs resume their league campaign, and there are three matches in other competitions to consider. 

With two weeks until the next full Premier League weekend, the media will be hunting for a new narrative to fill their columns. 

Can this team match up with the legendary 1960-61 double winners? That is the exaggerated level the coverage will soon reach, particularly if Crystal Palace are beaten in the FA Cup next Sunday.

The idea that Spurs could be a legitimate chance of a league and cup double over half a century since that historic achievement is exciting, romantic and low-hanging fruit. 

The youth and enthusiasm of Pochettino's team have been crucial to their rapid progress under his instruction. Players have swiftly developed as they embraced his methods and threw themselves over each hurdle. 

Those advantages could turn against them as the pressure builds. Young players with no experience of the pressure of a title race could be broken by it. 

Errors were uncharacteristically numerous in Sunday's victory, but that should not be confused for the importance of the match proving too much. Instead, the team rose above individual difficulties and found a way to win. 

Until now, Spurs have dealt with each challenge so there is reason for optimism, but this victory is likely to prove a watershed. 

Any stumble from this point will be hammered by the newspapers, and the players will have to adapt quickly. Even the manager has never experienced the dizzy heights of second place in mid-February and must avoid the pitfalls that have sunk others in similar situations. 

Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan infamously lost his nerve in a battle of wits with then-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who similarly bested Liverpool's Rafa Benitez with the Spaniard unravelling live on Sky Sports News. 

As that pressure builds externally, Tottenham will be focused on surviving their FA Cup and Europa League ties over the next 10 days. 

Pochettino must decide if he really thinks he can balance the demands of all three competitions, and the players he sends to Florence for the first leg will be instructive. 

He could send a full-strength squad to face Fiorentina in the first leg in the hopes of securing a defensible lead before rotating heavily in the return leg or consider sacrificing their campaign in favour of chasing the league title.  

Jon Super/Associated Press

In each of the many seasons that Spurs have contested the Europa League, it has seemed the more realistic source of glory. The idea that Tottenham could win the competitionas they've done twice in their historyis not the fantasy that a domestic title usually appears to be. 

With the incentive of a Champions League place for the winners, Europe's secondary competition has added gloss. 

There are nine matches between now and the Champions League place that comes with a Europa League trophy and just 12 remaining in the Premier League.  

There is no certainty that Spurs will be able to claim either trophy and so there is little wisdom in prioritising one over the others. 

The next 19 days are among the most significant in Tottenham's recent history. 

Six games; an FA Cup meeting with Crystal Palace, the Europa League tie against Fiorentina and a trio of Premier League matches culminating with Arsenal's visit to White Hart Lane on March 5, to keep alive the dream of Tottenham's most glorious season since 1961.