London – The only question for Tottenham Hotspur to answer in south London was a psychological one. Did the damage that Chelsea inflicted at Wembley on Saturday, in another chastening semi‑final experience for Spurs, extend to the Premier League title race?
Ideally Mauricio Pochettino would have picked somewhere other than Selhurst Park to see whether his players could come up with a response and, in the process, silence the inevitable criticism that was destined to come his way if they ended up dropping points.
Crystal Palace, after all, had vanquished Arsenal and won at Chelsea and Anfield in the space of 22 days, and there is something about Selhurst Park under the lights at this stage of the season – the mind strays back to that improbable comeback against Liverpool three years ago – that seems to turn up the heat on title challengers.
In that sense the script was written for Spurs to come up short, particularly after the way things unravelled for them at a similar stage last season – this game was almost a year to the day since they drew at home against West Bromwich Albion, leaving them with too much ground to make up on Leicester City.
All of which makes the way Spurs managed to chisel out three points against a resurgent Palace team all the more impressive. It felt like a victory for the manager as much as his players, especially after Pochettino went for the jugular at half-time, changing the system and personnel to bend this contest in Tottenham’s favour.
Much improved after the interval, Spurs kept probing and their persistence was rewarded with little more than 10 minutes remaining when Christian Eriksen picked up the ball about 25 yards from goal and unleashed a right‑foot shot that flashed beyond Wayne Hennessey and into the corner of the net. Pochettino, who had cut an anxious figure for much of the second half as he stood on the edge of his technical area with his arms folded, exploded into life as he sprinted down the touchline, thrusting two fists into the air. Seconds later the travelling supporters were singing about hunting down Chelsea and the mood had been transformed.
Pochettino was quick to stress afterwards that this was not about sending a message to Chelsea, with the Argentinian refusing to engage in what he described as “mind games”, yet it was hard to overstate the importance of this win, especially in the context of that 4-2 defeat against Antonio Conte’s side four days earlier.
At times in the first half it seemed as if Spurs were still suffering. They looked flat, Palace were snapping into tackles and Spurs lacked discipline and composure with and without the ball. Victor Wanyama, booked for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, looked like a red card waiting to happen, with Harry Kane called over at one point in the first half by Jon Moss, the referee, to help get the message across to his team-mate that he was straying dangerously close to being sent off.
With that in mind it was not surprising that Wanyama was withdrawn at half-time. Mousa Dembélé, Wanyama’s midfield partner, also failed to reappear for the second half after suffering an ankle injury, prompting Pochettino to introduce the more attack-minded Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko. The back three was scrapped, Eric Dier moved into a deep-lying midfield role behind Eriksen and Dele Alli, and Tottenham, on paper at least, were unrecognisable from the team that started the game.
They were bold changes and ultimately everything paid off for Pochettino and Spurs, courtesy of that goal from the increasingly influential Eriksen. The Dane has now scored five times and created 11 in his past 12 matches in all competitions, signalling his importance to a team that refuses to give up hope of catching Chelsea.
Their next assignment is against Arsenal and it was pointed out to Pochettino that a Spurs victory at White Hart Lane on Sunday would ensure that they finish above their north London rivals for the first time in 22 years. The Spurs manager responded by suggesting his team were thinking of “bigger things than only to be above Arsenal”, and everyone knew what he had in mind.
The Guardian Sport