The darkest horse is often the one sneaking up the rail, unseen until the final bend, only to win by a nose. And to push the horse analogy as far as it will stretch, the Premier League title race is yet to enter the final furlong, but Tottenham Hotspur’s victory over a limp Everton side on Wednesday now has the London side very much on Manchester United’s heels. Indeed, Spurs’ victory brings Harry Redknapp’s in-form side level on points with United, and just three behind Manchester City, with 18 games to go.
Even if Redknapp’s side remains third favourites in an increasingly three-horse race, only the foolhardy will now discount Spurs altogether. After all, while the Londoners face a tough couple of months – hosting United, and visiting City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea – Redknapp’s men will enjoy nine winnable games to end the season. If the north London side remains in touch of the leaders after the fixture with Chelsea on 9 March, Redknapp’s outfit could well pick up a first title since 1961.
It’s a remarkable turnaround in a season that began poorly amid the acrimony surrounding star midfielder Luka Modrić’s and his potential transfer to Chelsea. Injuries and poor form saw Spurs pick up just X points from the first 10 games.
And now, says Redknapp, the pressure will be on City, with the two sides clashing at Eastlands on 22 January in what could yet be a pivotal tie in the title race.
“The pressure is on Man City [because of] their squad and the money they have been able to spend,” said Redknapp after Spurs’ win over Everton on Wednesday.
“They are expected to be there and win. We are just hanging in there at the moment and playing well. Nothing’s impossible. I wasn’t there but someone said William Gallas came in the other day and said to everyone: ‘Listen, we have a chance here’. You have to keep believing and apart from that I enjoy the way we play. If you don’t enjoy the way we play, then you shouldn’t be watching football.
“We don’t put pressure on the players [but] we are playing well, playing with smiles on our faces. We had a bad start to the season. I’ve been around football clubs long enough to know when there’s a good feeling or a bad feeling. We had bad pre-season, we had problems off the pitch with Luka Modrić and injuries in midfield.
“Then we bring in Scott Parker, who I’d been chasing for months, and Emmanuel Adebayor arrives and Luka gets sorted out and suddenly we look a different team and we’ve not looked back since then.”
The chastening 5-0 defeat to City in August, just hours before United thrashed Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford, did not deflate Redknapp’s belief though as Spurs picked up momentum through the Autumn. But with United having beaten the London side 3-0 at Old Trafford earlier this season Redknapp’s side will have to turn around poor results against the division’s leading sides if it is to stay in touch over the next 10 weeks. While the Londoner’s form is outstanding, few supporters will be genuinely shocked if Redknapp’s side drops points against other contenders in the coming weeks.
It is a challenge Redknapp believes his team can meet, especially with Spurs facing no further European commitments this season. Indeed, in Sir Alex Ferguson, Redknapp has an ally in the belief that the London side can pick up the title this season, despite United’s experience and City’s vast sovereign wealth. Insisting that Arsenal and Chelsea are out of the title race, Ferguson claimed that “Tottenham can definitely win it They play the best football in the country and their current form is the best in the country.”
However, genuine doubts surround the size and scope of Spurs’ squad, together with the complete lack of experience in Redknapp’s outfit when it comes to challenging for titles. Injuries to key players including Modrić, together with Bale and in-form Emmanuel Adebayor could scupper the challenge. Roberto Mancini will be grateful that Premier League rules preclude the Togan facing his parent club in a fortnight’s time. Meanwhile, the Italian will be without the Touré brothers and potentially Mario Ballotelli, and David Silva for the clash, each of whom has suffered injury in recent weeks.
The same could be said of United too though, for whom injuries continue to bite. With Paul Scholes back in the squad, Ferguson is unlikely to rush Tom Cleverley back into action, while Anderson is still short of match fitness and Darron Gibson is likely to be sold. In defence captain Nemanja Vidić will not return until next season, meaning that any further injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in particular could seriously impact United’s chances.
All of which adds up to a fascinating run-in, shorn for the first time in years of both Arsenal and Chelsea. It is a race in which there is no clear favourite although Mancini’s outfit currently holds a three point lead, and a healthy goal difference advantage.
Yet, just as United threw away points against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle in recent weeks, so will City and Spurs in the weeks to come. Mancini’s ability to prevent a mini blip – four defeats in eight games – turning into a full-blown crisis will be key to the Blues chances.
For Redknapp, simply maintaining the side’s recent form will be a bonus.