This is the time of year when teams show what they are made of, when their character is revealed far more clearly than in the first two-thirds of the season. Yesterday Tottenham Hotspur showed that they are for real as they strengthened their hold on second place in the Premier League table, just two points behind Leicester City.
Spurs trailed for almost an hour after Alberto Paloschi had given Swansea City a surprising lead. A lesser side might have panicked, wilted, or left themselves exposed on the break by chasing the game. But Tottenham kept their heads, kept playing football their way, and eventually broke the visitors down.
When Danny Rose won the game with 13 minutes left, White Hart Lane resonated with the noise of 35,000 Spurs supporters whose belief and trust in this team were vindicated, as they now are most weeks. The club’s head coach, Mauricio Pochettino, was so thrilled he celebrated with the fans, and appeared to be very seriously considering jumping in with them.
There is a special bond at Tottenham now between the fans and the team, and Pochettino made clear how much this win owed to their patience and support.
“I need to recognise and say thank you to our supporters, because they were brilliant,” he said. “At 1-0 down they lifted the team and helped us to achieve our objective. The connection was fantastic between the crowd and the team; it was perfect.”
Pochettino admitted that until Spurs scored, he was feeling “upset, disappointed and frustrated” as he watched them dominate possession but fail to break through. They spent most of the first 70 minutes of the game in possession, creating chances but failing to beat Lukasz Fabianski, who had a brilliant game in the visitors’ goal.
Swansea did very little wrong and would have beaten a lesser side than Tottenham with this performance. They defended well, kept their shape, and took the lead in the 19th minute when Angel Rangel’s shot hit Jack Cork and fell at the feet of Paloschi, who finished easily for his first goal in English football.
Once Swansea were ahead they dug in, and the onus was on Spurs to pick them apart. Tottenham have lost two home games this season under similar circumstances – to Leicester and Crystal Palace – and this one could have gone the same way. Spurs, to their credit, continued to play at a high tempo and to create chances, only to be repeatedly denied by Fabianski.
First he saved Harry Kane’s near-post attempt from a Christian Eriksen cross. He stuck out a hand, showing remarkable reflexes, to deny Eric Dier from close range. Then he clawed an Eriksen free-kick off the goal-line after it had curled over the defensive wall. Those were the brilliant saves but there were plenty of good ones too, as Spurs resorted to trying to beat him from distance.
It was after Fabianski had tipped Rose’s long-range shot over the bar that he was finally beaten. Fabianski punched the corner-kick and the ball fell to Kyle Walker on the edge of the box. He drove it back in and Nacer Chadli, who has a good nose for a loose ball, touched it in at close range.
Once the game was level only one side was going to prevail, and Spurs kept driving forward in pursuit of the winner. Another corner was only half cleared, and the ball fell to Rose on the edge of the box. His bouncing shot flew in, prompting the loudest noise heard at White Hart Lane for some time.
Tottenham pushed for a third goal and thought they had scored one when Walker converted Kane’s cross, only for his effort to be ruled out for offside. At the other end, Hugo Lloris had to save from Paloschi but the final 10 minutes, and the five that were added on, were very comfortable for Spurs.
They visit West Ham United on Wednesday night before hosting Arsenal on Saturday, which is set to be the game of their season so far. The job for Pochettino is to keep the players’ energy levels up as the big matches come at them harder and harder. He knows, though, that there is no better preparation than winning.
“The players know Wednesday is another big game. We need to recover as soon as possible to try to arrive with good energy,” the Argentine said.
“It is easier to prepare [for] the West Ham game after this victory. [The players] are happy, they smile, it’s a better mood for recovery. Some players need to be managed, because they feel a little bit tired. They know, and we know, that we are in a good position in the table, but there is still a long, long way to arrive to the end of the season.”
The Swansea coach, Alan Curtis, could only marvel at how well Tottenham played. “They were probably just too good for us, truth be told,” he said. “Spurs kept coming and coming and coming.
“It is a difficult place to come now, they are a terrific side. They’ve got pace, power and technical ability. We just kept being forced back by wave upon wave of attacks. They are so difficult to play against. There seems to be a belief in this Spurs side, and you could sense that from the crowd.”
So, with 11 games left, can Spurs overhaul Leicester?
“I thought they could win the title before the game,” Curtis said. “But having seen them up close, I think it even more now.”