There is no greater evidence of just what an unpredictable season this has been than the fact that Tottenham sitting in second place with only 13 matches remaining is not the surprise story getting all the headlines. Leicester City’s fairytale rise to first place and the most unlikely tag of title favorites is understandably garnering all the attention. But in any other Premier League season it would be Tottenham’s challenge that would be the subject of gushing, slightly bewildered praise.
A run of four wins on the bounce and 22 points from their last 27 available means that Spurs sit second, their highest position at this stage of the season since 1985. They have not finished in the top two since 1963, and it has been two years longer since the north London club last became English champions.
With Tottenham visiting third-placed Manchester City on Sunday, just a few hours after Leicester take on fourth-placed Arsenal, Spurs’ position could well be even stronger come the end of the weekend.
It is no surprise therefore that Sir Alex Ferguson recently described Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino as the “best manager in the Premier League.” It is also easy to understand why there is thought to be at least one leading decision maker at Manchester United who wants the Argentine, and not Jose Mourinho, to become the next manager at Old Trafford.
At a club with the sixth highest wage bill in the Premier League—around half the amount of Sunday’s opponents Manchester City—and that is carefully monitoring finances ahead of a move to a new stadium, Pochettino is vastly exceeding expectations in his second season. He has a young, hungry squad following his instructions and implementing an intense pressing style to a tee.
Yet rather than be aggrieved that their hugely impressive season isn’t getting the attention it would in any other campaign, it could benefit Tottenham that their title chase is, to some degree, going under the radar.
“It's better to not speak too much, only show, to work hard,” Pochettino said after his side beat Watford 1-0 last week. “I believe in my players, in my squad, and we'll see. It's difficult to guess what will happen in the future. In football, belief is the most important. If we believe, it can happen.”
The same mindset cannot be shared by those at Manchester City. Having spent unparalleled sums in recent years and winning two Premier League titles in the last four seasons, anything less than the championship this season will be seen as a major disappointment. That would be particularly true were they to be denied a title by either Tottenham or Leicester City.
There has understandably been a lot of goodwill directed toward Manuel Pellegrini for the dignified manner in which he has taken the decision of the club to replace him with Pep Guardiola for next season. Yet Manchester City’s performance this campaign shows just why the club’s hierarchy have judged it necessary to initiate a change in manager.
With their immense financial and playing resources and the demise of Chelsea and Manchester United this season, this could and perhaps should have been a season dominated by Pellegrini’s men. Instead they lie fourth after a 3-1 home humbling by Leicester last weekend. The scoreline could have been even more emphatic, with Leicester showing up the intensity and focus that is too often lacking from Manchester City’s play over the course of a season. Despite spending around £70 million on center-backs in the past two summers and having world-class players throughout the team, City remain heavily dependent on the organization and leadership provided by Vincent Kompany.
It is a considerable boost therefore that the Belgian defender could return to the City squad on Sunday. Yet, having not started a game in over three months because of a lingering calf injury, he is unlikely to start. With Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri already ruled out and City facing the prospect of falling nine points off top spot with a defeat on Sunday, Pellegrini will desperately hope that by the time Kompany is fully fit it isn’t already too late for their title chances.
Prediction: Tottenham ripped Manchester City apart to win 4-1 at White Hart Lane in September, when Kompany was also missing. Since then Spurs have only gotten better and more assured, while City continue to frustrate and embrace inconsistency. There could well be an emphatic contrast in the work rate of the two teams in Sunday, with a Tottenham side featuring furious young energy going up against a City team that often looks labored and complacent. It could lead to another painful and potentially critical home defeat for Manchester City.
Predicted score: Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham