Why Tottenham shouldn’t be quaking over Man City test

Why Tottenham shouldn’t be quaking over Man City test

For most clubs in a difficult moment, a visit to Manchester City would be the worst possible fixture to potentially spark a revival, but for Tottenham it is different.

Spurs have won four of their last five League meetings with the champions, and beaten Pep Guardiola with four different managers, including Antonio Conte, who masterminded a 3-2 win at the Etihad in February.

The current mood at Spurs is glum and increasingly febrile, following a run of poor performances, but there are reasons for optimism tonight.

For the first time since September, Conte has a fully fit squad (Lucas Moura aside), with midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur expected to return and Richarlison pushing out-of-form Heung-min Son for a place in the front three.

There are no prizes for guessing how both teams will play, and Guardiola’s demands for his players to dominate possession should suit Conte’s game of fast transitions, creating welcome space for Harry Kane and his support cast.

Conte has already predicted that his side will be allowed no more than “20 to 25 per cent” possession, but no matter; last year, Spurs had 29 per cent of the ball and just six shots to City’s 21, but came away as deserved winners, with Kane giving a magisterial display.

There is also the question of City’s own form, with the champions having lost their last two matches, against Southampton in the Carabao Cup and Manchester United last Saturday, leaving them eight points adrift of Arsenal and looking over their shoulders at their neighbours and Newcastle.

In a rapid reversal of the pre-World Cup narrative, summer signing Erling Haaland has emerged as a major part of City’s problem, and Guardiola spent much of his press conference insisting that the Norwegian is not the issue.

Plainly, however, for all his goals, Haaland is often a bystander, and he had just 19 touches against a makeshift United defence, which included left-back Luke Shaw at centre-half. Haaland will punish any lapses from Spurs’s back five, but his lack of involvement may also make City easier to contain.

Harry Kane’s winner at the Etihad last season. (Getty Images)
Harry Kane’s winner at the Etihad last season. (Getty Images)

The Haaland issue is of particular relevance tonight, because he will be in direct comparison with Kane, the striker City missed out on a year earlier.

Kane has no problem involving himself in the build-up and is as much a world-class No10 as he is a lethal goalscorer, best demonstrated by his display at City last season, which was arguably his best-ever performance. He scored twice, including a 95th-minute winner, and his general play from deep was exceptional.

Another double tonight would see him surpass Jimmy Greaves as Spurs’s all-time top scorer and reach 200 goals in the Premier League.

That said, it is doubtful whether Spurs are really in a place to pull off another season-altering victory, given their own array of issues.

Most glaring is their inability to get going before half-time, and Sunday’s north London derby defeat by Arsenal followed a now grimly-familiar pattern, with Conte’s side outplayed for the opening 45 minutes before rallying in the second half. By then, the League leaders were 2-0 up and comfortable.

City, too, have the quality to kill the game by the interval if Spurs do not start with more intensity. Even against League One Portsmouth in the FA Cup, Spurs did not get going until the second half.

Their slow starts have contributed to a remarkable record of having conceded first in 11 of their last 13 games, and allowing City to establish a lead would inevitably impact Conte’s counter-punching approach by allowing Guardiola’s side to commit fewer players forward and be more cautious in possession.

Spurs have not trailed in any of their four recent wins over City, so the first goal tonight feels particularly vital.Conte will also be concerned about the form of two of his most important players, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris having made costly mistakes against Arsenal and Aston Villa recently, and Son, who is usually such a threat in this fixture, still desperately struggling for touch and confidence.

The game was originally scheduled for September 10, but postponed following the Queen’s death. Had it been played when planned, Spurs would have travelled to Manchester with five wins and two draws from their opening seven games, and with talk of a title tilt not far-fetched.

As it is, Spurs are aiming for a big win to revive their faltering season and remain in touch with the top four. History suggests there are worse opponents for them to face.