It happened in the space of just six minutes and 22 seconds, the time it took for Tottenham Hotspur to score three improbable goals and for the bubble to burst for Roberto Mancini’s side for what will surely be the last time this season. They could not have made it much simpler for Manchester United if they had tried, now that the leaders need only win at Old Trafford on Monday night to make their 20th championship official.
It cannot be that City have been intimidated into allowing their neighbours surge to the title with potentially four games of the season left to play, because there was nothing particularly intimidating about United’s form of late. Rather, a familiar anxiety took grip of City and once it had hold, there was no telling just how bad things could get for them.
For most of the first half, during which they took the lead through Samir Nasri, City lived up to their billing as the form team of the month with Carlos Tevez leaving the Spurs defence like butterfly collectors in futile pursuit of one elusive specimen. The Argentine should have scored their second goal on 42 minutes when Hugo Lloris instead reached out a hand to stop it, a moment that Andre Villas-Boas would later identify as critical to the afternoon.
For much of that first half, and a good deal of the second, Villas-Boas looked like a man contemplating the collapse of his season. He ended the match having to restrain his assistant Steffen Freund from joining in the goal celebrations. Somewhere in the middle was a tactical shift which will take pride of place in the Villas-Boas coaching dossier, and no doubt all those theses that argue for him as one of the great modern coaches.
On the hour, he replaced Scott Parker and Gylfi Sigurdsson with Tom Huddlestone and Lewis Holtby and changed the game. Twelve minutes later he substituted the hapless Emannuel Adebayor for Jermain Defoe who scored the second and the whole thing was recast in the popular imagination as a tactical masterpiece.
You could say that there were precious few other options at his disposal, or that no-one was going to be less effective at centre-forward than Adebayor, not even, say, Jake Livermore. In truth when he considered the bench Villas-Boas had few options when it came to chasing the game against the champions, but he deserves the credit for at least taking the plunge.
It was Holtby who supplied Defoe for the second goal, and Huddlestone who passed to Bale for the third. Suddenly Spurs had come alive and, after one win in their last seven games in all competitions it was about time. They switched to a 4-3-3 formation and City had no response, bringing on the lesser-spotted Scott Sinclair and then Joleon Lescott in a meagre attempt to turn the game around.
It thrusts Spurs back into the heart of the intriguing three-way battle between themselves, Chelsea and Arsenal for the three Champions League places. If it is still alive by the time that Spurs visit Stamford Bridge two weeks on Wednesday, the game in hand both sides have over Arsenal, then that match promises to be an absorbing contest with so much at stake for both teams.
As for City, at times it is hard to see why it has gone so wrong for them this season when they play as well as they did in the first half. In the first five minutes, Jan Vertonghen made the mistake of believing he had seen off the danger from Tevez, ushering him out to the right before the City man unexpectedly changed direction. He played in James Milner who cut the ball back to Nasri for a tidy finish.
Nasri was fortunate that referee Lee Mason did not see the full extent of his bad challenge on Kyle Walker eight minutes later which went largely unnoticed on the Spurs bench too. Nasri, and then Edin Dzeko, had further chances in the first half but were unable to finish. Gareth Barry was running the midfield much as he had against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final a week earlier, but trouble was just around the corner.
Spurs had threatened only once in the first half when Joe Hart was obliged to make a good save from Walker as he ran onto a ball by Clint Dempsey into the right channel of the area. It was Dempsey who scored Spurs’ equaliser, a lovely ball played with the outside of Bale’s left foot from the right wing. It eluded Vincent Kompany, out of sorts in the second half, and presented itself nice for tucking away at the back post.
Bale had started in a central position behind Adebayor and struggled after a two match absence to find a place in the game. On the right wing he looked much more effective. It was Holtby who won the ball in midfield for the second goal, passing it out to the right channel where Defoe had taken Kompany. The Spurs man moved the ball back onto his right foot as he carried it into the area and hit one of those vicious shots that are past the goalkeeper before he reacts.
It was Defoe’s first goal in the league since Boxing Day and by that point, White Hart Lane was in raptures and the old confidence was flooding back. Huddlestone, an impressive player in midfield, who passed the ball well as City tired, created the third goal. He spotted a window of opportunity between two defenders as City backed off him to create the opening and Bale lifted the third gently over Hart with the outside of his left foot.
Game over for City who would probably rather get the worst of it out the way tonight with a United victory over Aston Villa that settles the title race once and for all and allows Mancini’s team to concentrate on securing second place and winning the FA Cup final on 11 May. It will be painful to hand the trophy back but then if they needed reminding of where they have gone wrong over the last ten months then this game encompassed much of the good and the bad.
Spurs: LLORIS 7/10, DAWSON 6, WALKER 6, VERTONGHEN 6, ASSOU-EKOTTO 6, PARKER 6 DEMBELE 7, DEMPSEY 6, BALE 7, SIGURDSSON 5, ADEBAYOR 4
Manchester City: HART 6, KOMPANY 5, CLICHY 5, NASTASIC 5, ZABALETA 6, 6, TEVEZ 7, BARRY 7, NASRI 6, Y TOURE, MILNER 7, DZEKO 4
Goals. Spurs: Dempsey (75), Defoe (79), Bale (82) Man City: Nasri (5)
Substitutions: Tottenham Hotspur Holtby 7 (Sigurdsson, 60), Huddlestone 7 (Parker, 61), Defoe 7 (Adebayor, 71). Manchester City Kolarov 6 (Milner, H/T), Sinclair (Dzeko, 83), Lescott (Clichy, 90+1).
Bookings: Tottenham Dawson, Assou-Ekotto. Man City Y Toure, Hart.
Man of the match Bale. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Tottenham 45%. Man City 55%.
Attempts on target: Tottenham 6. Man City 4.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire). Attendance 36,121