Saturday 21st January 17.30
This is certainly the pick of the weekend. The first meeting of these clubs in October was a season-defining moment not only for the teams but for the league, too. Up until that point, Manchester City had destroyed all before them, winning every game they played across all competitions. It was an imperious start to Pep Guardiola’s reign. An away draw to Celtic presaged their visit to White Hart Lane where they were blown away by the home side’s intensive, high press and swarming aggression. It’s no exaggeration to say that City’s wheels came off after that game and have yet to be fully mended.
Questions asked, questions answered
Somewhat strangely, Spurs utterly failed to follow up on the promise they showed in that game and subsequently won just a single game out of 10 in all competitions. Questions were being asked of Spurs’ transfer policy, of Mauricio Pochettino’s training methods, of the resolve of their players. However, the last 10 games has seen them lose once and win the remainder. One of those victories came against a Chelsea side who had won their previous 13 on the trot – no mean feat.
So it is that Spurs have climbed right back up the table and now find themselves 2nd in the league, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference and seven points behind leaders, Chelsea. They have the best defence in the league having conceded just 14 goals and star striker, Harry Kane, has found his shooting boots once again, bagging a hat-trick in their 4-0 pummeling of the usually parsimonious West Bromwich Albion last weekend. Delle Alli has also been netting regularly and is now in double figures for goals scored this season.
Every silver lining has a cloud
There is, however, a dark cloud in their bright blue sky and that is the injury suffered by defensive mainstay, Jan Vertonghen. In concert with this compatriot Toby Aldewereld, the Belgian has been the rock upon which Spurs’ success has been built and his absence will require some considered tinkering with line-ups and/or formation by Pochettino. The Austrian defender, Kevin Wimmer, does not inspire this column with much confidence and he is a considerable step down in terms of quality.
Speaking of clouds
All this and we have yet to mention the humbling and chastising defeat that City suffered at the hands of Everton last weekend. They conceded four goals from four shots faced, a damning indictment of defence, ‘keeper and manager. Excellent manager though he is, Guardiola has been uncharacteristically poor with regard to many of the choices he has made of late. We mentioned last week the folly of ‘doing a Lahm’ with Pablo Zabaleta as the Argentine full back is clearly not cut out for midfield duties. Nor is Yaya Toure, for that matter and the two aging players offer nothing like the security that is required to patrol in front of a porous defence. The less said about Claudio Bravo, the better but suffice it to say, somewhere in Turin, Joe Hart is probably enjoying a whole heap of schadenfreude.
Purity of purpose or blind fanaticism?
So how will this play out? Quite simply, if City and Guardiola continue to play as they have done, their idealistic fundamentalism will see them beaten again. Guardiola must realise that the players he has at his disposal pale in comparison to the players he coached at Bayern Munich and Barcelona and are incapable of carrying out his orders as he would like. He must resist the urge to be stubborn and show some flexibility in his approach just as he did in their 3-1 win over Barcelona in the Champion’s League qualifying group. Do that and they stand some chance of winning.
This should be an intriguing match whatever way it pans out. There is no doubt that Spurs have the wind in their sails and they will arrive brimming with confidence – it is their match to lose. Much of the outcome will depend on how Pochettino re-arranges his defence in the absence of Vertonghen. Having said that, Spurs will surely look to press and make life difficult for the home side and it’s hard to see how this current incarnation of City will deal with it. Although it may end in a draw (and it should be noted that the bookies have City as favourites), this column reckons that Spurs are hitting this tie in the best form they could hope for and that should be enough to get them all three points. The best price for a Spurs win is a tasty 11/4 from 32Red.