When Arsenal lost for a fourth time in five league games at West Brom on Saturday, Spurs fans sensed another opportunity to extend their lead over their local rivals. Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat reduced the pressure on Mauricio Pochettino’s team before their game against Southampton the following day, which they won 2-1 – their fourth victory in five league games – to establish a nine-point lead over Arsenal, who have now fallen to sixth in the table.
Arsenal have a game in hand on Tottenham but, given their current form and the overriding sense of uncertainty at the club, there is no guarantee that they will be able to reduce the gap. Aside from Manchester United’s win at Middlesbrough, it was an excellent weekend for Tottenham – if you accept that Chelsea are now out of reach at the top of the table.
Coming second this season would be a real achievement for Spurs after they failed so emphatically on the final day of last season. There would be no shame in finishing runners up to this Chelsea team. Although Arsenal pipped Tottenham to second place last May, the fact they finished behind Leicester City somewhat reduced the achievement, perhaps unjustly, as fans were frustrated that they had missed a massive opportunity to win the league for the first time since 2004.
Tottenham did not lead the league at all last season and, given Chelsea’s form this season, their fans will not have expected to win the title this year either. But the tide is turning in North London, if it hasn’t already. Finishing below Arsenal for the last 21 seasons has hurt Tottenham but the expectations have changed. Spurs fans now feel that they should be above Arsenal in the table, and rightly so.
Tottenham are undeniably the stronger team at present. Pochettino’s side manage matches and situations with far more professionalism than Arsenal, so surely they can’t let their advantage slip this time around. This time last season – after 28 games – Tottenham were in second place just three points clear of their rivals, with five points fewer than they have this campaign. Funnily enough, if Arsenal win their game in hand, they will be two points better off than they were after the same number of games a year ago. While their recent capitulation has understandably stolen the headlines, it’s Tottenham’s continued improvement that has enabled them to extend the gap.
Spurs fans have cause for optimism – and their next five matches are against teams in the bottom half of the table – but their run-in isn’t what you would consider plain sailing. Tottenham’s away form has cost them a shot at the title this season. They have won just four of their 13 matches on the road – the same number as Crystal Palace, who just happen to be one of the six sides they are still to face away from home.
Before then they travel to Turf Moor to face a Burnley side whose vast chasm in points won at home compared to away (26 points) is the only one in the league greater than Spurs’ (23). Burnley have won seven of their last nine at home and haven’t lost to Tottenham in four at Turf Moor. Then Spurs are off to Swansea City, who are fighting for their lives and have won their last three home matches.
However, back-to-back home games with Watford and Bournemouth, who between them have won just two of their last 16 away games, makes far more encouraging reading. Spurs then travel to Selhurst Park for a rescheduled midweek game against Crystal Palace, who are also scrapping for points at the bottom and have found some form of their own.
The comes the big one. The North London derby at the Lane in late April will be massive in deciding whether Arsenal can catch Spurs once more, if it’s not already too late by then. The game just so happens to fall on the same week as “The Battle of the Bridge” last season – just a year and two days after Tottenham spectacularly unravelled in West London.
Another London derby at West Ham kicks off what is likely to be a run of three away games in four, with a fixture at a resurgent Leicester City still to be rearranged. Then Spurs play their last home game of the season and potentially the last ever Premier League game to be played at White Hart Lane, against Manchester United, who just don’t lose matches at present, before a trip to Hull on the final day of the season.
Tottenham will be desperate to finish in second and they will be a facing a Hull City side who might be relegated by then. If it is in their own hands and Hull are unable to budge from their current spot in the relegation zone, memories of their disastrous trip up to Newcastle last season are sure to come flooding back.
It seems unlikely that Arsenal will be the side challenging them for second come the end of the season though, and Tottenham shouldn’t lose focus as they did last season. Pochettino’s team seem all but certain to usurp their rivals for the first time in over two decades and, while Arsenal’s recent struggles have played a big part in that, Spurs will deserve great credit for outgunning the Gunners this time around.
The Guardian Sport