At White Hart Lane on Thursday, third and fourth clash with so much on the line. For both sides, it’s one of the biggest matches of the season. For Spurs, it is an opportunity to open up a five point gap, with a game in hand, and really prove that they belong among the Premier League’s elite. Chelsea need a win to edge in front of Spurs and back in to the top three. A 1-0 victory for Spurs would open up a five point gap between them and Chelsea, with a game in hand, and equal goal difference of +14.
Since August, Spurs have won eleven matches, losing and drawing once each. They have also scored 29 times, conceding just eight. Spurs are seven points better off than they were at this point in 2009-10; when they finished fourth, and nine points in front of where they were at this point last season. Crucially, they are also scoring more goals; a decisive flaw last term, and conceding fewer; credit to the number of games that Ledley King has been able to play. Chelsea have made ten defensive errors (double Spurs’ tally of five) and conceded eight more goals than they had after 16 games last season. Surprisingly, Chelsea actually have two more points than they did at that point.
Spurs play with speed. Their game relies on pace on both wings and up front that stretches the opposition defence, makes the pitch big and allows Modric, Parker and Van der Vaart the space to play. However, the Spurs injury list is large and growing. If Harry Redknapp is to be believed, Bale, Defoe, Adebayor, Lennon, King and Sandro are all out. While Lennon is certainly injured, most of the others can be expected to play a part.
Spurs struggled to break down Sunderland on Sunday after losing Defoe and Bale in the build-up and Lennon during the match. The withdrawal of their pace and directness left Spurs looking a little lost. As a result of Sunderland’s refusal to attack, Spurs’ fullbacks were unleashed. This was eventually decisive. Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker were allowed to play as wingers as Sunderland’s midfielders sat deep and showed little ambition. Modric drifted inside and helped Van der Vaart create the winning goal.
Chelsea will not play in the same way. Sturridge and Mata are both dangerous, skilful players who present very different challenges to the Tottenham defence. Sturridge is direct. He is Chelsea’s top scorer with eight goals but has created only 13 scoring chances for other players. Mata though, is a creator with 41 scoring chances and seven assists. While they will not contribute defensively; they have made only 13 tackles between them in almost 2,000 Premier League minutes, they will be a constant attacking threat. The Tottenham fullbacks will be unable to surge forward as they did against Sunderland. Tottenham may be able to take advantage of Petr Cech’s perceived weakness. The Czech keeper has been below his excellent best this season and Spurs shoot from outside the box more than any other side in the division. It could be a devastating combination.
David Luiz has been ruled out and Alex has been sent to the reserves, so Terry will likely partner Ivanovic with Bosingwa at right back. If so, Spurs will be desperate for Bale to play. The Welsh winger has been devastating this season. Three times, he has seen players on his side of the pitch dismissed from the field and Bosingwa can be a defensive liability, although the Portuguese fullback has won 19/22 tackles this season.
Harry Redknapp’s side would value a point more highly than Chelsea. Given his injury problems, he may choose to play the wing backs formation he deployed against Stoke. With Kaboul’s return from suspension, a back three of Kaboul, King and Gallas is possible. That would allow Assou-Ekotto and Walker more freedom to get forward and provide width. With Parker and Sandro holding in the midfield and Modric & Van der Vaart in support of Adebayor (or Pavlyuchenko if the Togolese is ruled out). It would be an unfamiliar formation, but would enable Spurs to overwhelm Chelsea’s midfield three and maintain defensive solidity.
This game will not decide anything but a result either way would be indicative of the progress made this season. Can Chelsea recover from early wobbles and re-enter the top three? Or, can Spurs make a real statement, demonstrating that they are one of the Premier League’s top teams?
I’ll leave you with the stats of last season’s game at White Hart Lane. All of the passing Opta Stats below are from the new area in the EPLIndex Stats Centre: Quick Match Stats! (Subscribe for access here!)