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Tuesday 28 March 2017

Spurs now a real title threat as race to top intensifies

Tottenham victory in midweek proves that Pochettino has healed last season's wounds

Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino congratulates Dele Alli on his brace against Chelsea on Wednesday night
Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino congratulates Dele Alli on his brace against Chelsea on Wednesday night
Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane, leads the line during the midweek win over Chelsea at White Hart Lane

Now we have a real title race to get our teeth into. Take any one of six with Chelsea still the racing favourites.

I take my hat off to Mauricio Pochettino and his players who did everyone else a big favour by beating Chelsea but most of all helped themselves.

I'll admit that I didn't see Spurs as a serious title challenger this season.

When Chelsea were half way through their 13 game winning run and I was looking at rivals to see which of them could match that and put it up to Antonio Conte, I didn't see Spurs in that bracket at all.

I thought a young manager and a young team might find it hard to grit their teeth, accept the disappointment and throw themselves straight back into the battle.

They did find it hard and Pochettino struggled but I have great admiration for the way he has refocused his players, brought them through the pain of losing a title they know they could have won and got them moving again.

This win highlighted the three outstanding elements which have made me change my mind about Spurs - Pochettino himself, his defence and Dele Alli.

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He had a big job to do in the summer after such a humiliating collapse in the title run-in and we know from Tottenham's history that patience is not a virtue which exists in any great amount at White Hart Lane.

Nobody panicked, least of all Pochettino and Daniel Levy, the chairman, a long-time target for my irritation, deserves some credit for backing his man.

I'm hesitant to give Levy all the credit he deserves because he does have form in this area but he really does look like a man who has seen the light and now values the idea of continuity, both on and off the pitch.

Pochettino has established his credentials as a manager who knows how to organise a group of men to defend and statistically, he now has the meanest defence in the Premier League, closely followed by Chelsea.

Back in Alex Ferguson's day, he used to say that you could only lose four or five games in a season if you had realistic designs on the title but we are in a different place now.

There are a half dozen clubs now within striking distance and that means we will have an awful lot more important games between title rivals than normal.

I would be surprised if the eventual winner meets the Ferguson criteria because of that but also because defences are simply not very good.

Add in Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal to the mix, teams that feel they will always score more than the opposition and don't prioritise defence as much and you can see why I think the winner is likely to come from Chelsea, Spurs or indeed Manchester United.

Pochettino probably has the best defence at this moment with Conte close behind, but Manchester United have only conceded 19 goals so far, the third best record in the Premier League. The other big factor which has elevated Spurs to serious contenders is Dele Alli who is now showing what he can do with the kind of consistency which marks him as a special player.

I don't like the edge he has which results in ill-discipline but he is still very young and I'm sure Pochettino is knocking these rough parts of his make-up into shape.

Levy recently set about nailing down Alli. Kane and the rest of his young squad on long term contracts which is a big statement of intent.

Alli and Kane are the obvious pressure points and Levy is certain to receive the kind of offers which tempted him in the past for people like Gareth Bale.

Imagine what Spurs could be now if Levy had resisted the urge to cash in on the Welshman or before him, Luka Modric?

It wasn't as if Levy did any great business with the money they got for Bale or Modric, well over £100m, despite the general consensus which hailed him as the smartest deal maker in the game. Most of the players brought in with the Bale money are gone and Levy should remember that in the summer if he feels any urge to dabble.

Alli may be in the same class as Bale and Kane is certainly right up there with the very best strikers in Europe so I would expect them to be in demand.

Demand

He's talented, strong and a big lad, Alli, and his height helped him get his head on two sweet, sweet crosses from Christian Eriksen for the two goals which put Chelsea away and threw the title race wide open again.

His scoring purple patch comes as a big help to Kane who has not hit the heights of last season yet but surely has a run of goals in him.

That's another reason why Spurs should be feeling very pleased with themselves at the moment. There is further capacity in this team for goals.

This is, of course, great news for Spurs and for their fans who are enjoying a second consecutive season in which the title is a realistic ambition.

As for Chelsea, I don't expect a slump after this defeat. It had to happen sometime and I can guarantee you one thing, it will be forgotten almost immediately by his players.

You don't win 13 on the bounce by accident. The run wasn't built on sand and Conte still has his defence to lean on and players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to score goals.

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