'Southern softies' Spurs show their hard centre

These are exciting times for Tottenham Hotspur, eyeing up the few clubs ahead of them in the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions' League knockout stage as group winners with the highest number of goals scored. The wider question, due to be posed again at 4pm today, is whether undoubted potential can be translated into solid achievement. Are Spurs a flash Harry in the pan, or something more durable?

Critics north of, say, Watford Gap, have always had their doubts about a club perceived as a "Cup team", lacking the character, consistency and discipline for the longer haul of League football; eight FA Cup wins, four in the League Cup, even three in European competition and yet only two English titles, in 1951 and 1961. "The sort of club where you knew you were going to win at home and probably lose away," was how the former captain Steve Perryman once put it.

In the past couple of decades, flakiness has been apparent not just against the northern giants but in dreadful records against Arsenal and today's opponents, Chelsea. Yet even that may just be changing. When the chips were down at the end of last season and a Champions' League place seemed to be slipping away, Spurs heads did not for once go down. Successive home games against the two London rivals in April were both won, as was a winner-takes-all game away to Manchester City for fourth place.

This season, Arsenal, at the Emirates, and Liverpool have been beaten. The squad under Harry Redknapp is stronger all round, managing to withstand a series of injuries to the midfield and defence that until recently left William Gallas and Sébastien Bassong as the only fit centre-halves.

Now the commanding Michael Dawson, injured playing for England in September, is fit again and hoping that after sitting in the dug-out against Birmingham and FC Twente in the past week, he may be thrust back in against Chelsea today.

"The ankle set me back and it's been longer than first thought but I'm back now, I've been training for two weeks and I've been feeling as fit as ever," Dawson said in Holland on Tuesday night after Spurs had secured first place in their group with a typically harum-scarum 3-3 draw. "You always need match fitness but the only way I'm going to get it is by playing. Anyone who's been out for three months knows it takes time. I'm itching to get out there. But the lads are doing well, so I've got to be patient and take the chance when it comes along."

If Chelsea are not fired up for this fixture, then there is something more radically wrong than a run of one win in six games suggests. Dawson does not believe that to be the case: "From back to front they're big-name players with fantastic experience. It's a blip. They're a great team but we know how good we are at White Hart Lane."

There is much potential – that word again – in a central defensive partnership, hitherto untried, between the experienced Gallas and Dawson, who could have their hands full today. "[Didier] Drogba and Nicolas Anelka are two top-class players, who've done it season after season in the Premier League and Champions' League," Dawson said. "Whenever you come up against Drogba, he's a handful, big and powerful, and he can head it. It's always a great game and I'm sure it will be again."

Unlike Tottenham supporters, he is not burdened with bad memories of the fixture, in which Spurs failed to win in the League from 1990 until Dawson scored his first goal for the club to set up a victory in 2006, 32 games later. At White Hart Lane since then, they have played a stunning 4-4 draw and beaten Chelsea twice, with winning goals by Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.

Modric should be back today, his absence with a virus in midweek offset by the return of a similarly classy performer in fellow countryman Niko Kranjcar. Kranjcar, like Jermaine Jenas, then succumbed to injury, but Dawson believes that the quality of replacement says something about the options open to Redknapp: "We've got a great squad and you've got to have that when you're playing in the Champions' League, because every game is as big as the next one. You're going to pick up injuries with the amount of games we play. Niko came in and was top-class, he gets on the ball and is a great player."

After Spurs came back from 2-0 down for that improbable victory at the Emirates three weeks ago, there was premature talk of the balance of power changing in London's northern postal districts. Starting four points behind Chelsea and six behind Arsenal this afternoon, with a favourable run of fixtures to come, Tottenham hope at the very least to make some capital over the next few weeks.

Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm

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