Most of the time managers complaining about having to play on a Thursday in the Europa League makes little sense, but this time it was just about possible to see Mauricio Pochettino’s point. That Tottenham played against Crystal Palace on Sunday was because of television rather than European commitments, but it did mean his side had had only three days rest, whereas Palace had had eight. That meant Spurs had a day less to prepare than Arsenal for their Capital One Cup meeting on Wednesday which in turn means they will have had a day less to prepare than Manchester City for Saturday’s game.
Weariness, perhaps, will add to the midfield problems caused by injures to Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and Mousa Dembele. City, meanwhile, have extensive concerns, with Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri and David Silva all doubtful, Pablo Zabaleta probably out and the young forward Kelechi Iheanacho struggling with the knock that kept him out of the Capital One Cup win over Sunderland.
Pochettino was adamant that Spurs should not feel downhearted by Wednesday’s defeat to Arsenal and he was right. After an even first half, Spurs were much the better side in the second, only to be defeated by a black swan event in Mathieu Flamini creaming in a volley from 25 yards to score two in a game for the first time in his career. But then that followed 1-0 wins over Sunderland and Palace in which Spurs, while looking better through midfield, got away with both opponents hitting the woodwork twice.
City’s fine start has stuttered of late: demolishing Sunderland in the Capital One Cup doesn’t erase the disquiet provoked by the tame defeats to Juventus and West Ham even if City can feel they were probably the better side in both games.
Spurs lost twice against City, first in a crazy match of three penalties – two missed - at the Etihad in which the sending of Federico Fazio midway through the second half tipped the game decisively City’s way, and then in a slightly drab game in May in which Spurs shaded possession but were undone, again, by Sergio Aguero.
THE BATTLE FOR THE FLANKS
City’s mass of doubts makes it hard to predict their team, but it’s reasonable to assume that Raheem Sterling will operate on one flank, probably the left. With a Champions League trip to Borussia Monchengladbach coming up next week, Manuel Pellegrini is unlikely to take risks on players who aren’t fully fit, which probably means Jesus Navas on the right and Kevin De Bruyne through the middle, although De Bruyne could move wide with Yaya Toure taking up a more advanced central position with Fernando or Fabian Delph coming in. Whatever the combination, City will have great pace wide, which may restrict the attacking intent of the Spurs full-backs, probably Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
That in turn may restrict Tottenham’s wide forwards, all of whom naturally cut in, something made easier if there is an overlapping full-back. In a sense, the Spurs full-backs become a gauge for the game: the higher they play, the more open it is likely to be.
Spurs look a far more dangerous side now that Christian Eriksen has returned and with Harry Kane’s ability to drop off – as he did in setting up the winner against Sunderland – and Heung-Min Son swooping in from the flank, there is a potentially lethal triangle of intermovement developing for Spurs.
The interface between back four and holding midfield was a major problem for City last season: it has looked better this but this will be a significant test, especially given the changes in personnel caused by the injuries.
Eric Dier has, by and large, done well in his midfield role this season, but the way Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain skipped away from him for the first Arsenal goal on Wednesday gives reason to wonder whether he may be vulnerable against the most technically gifted opposition. Whether David Silva, De Bruyne or Toure plays in the attacking midfield role for City, that is a potential flaw to target.
City are capable of blowing just about anybody away on their day, but still there is a sense that 3.85 for Tottenham to win is a little long, given how they have grown into the season and given City’s injury concerns. Adding a little security and backing them +0.5 is 1.91. The way to go, though, is surely under 2.5 goals, which given these are the sides with the best defensive records in the league and that Spurs could keep their full-backs deep and make it a cagey tight game, seems remarkably long at 2.15.
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