Liverpool 2 (Mane 16, 18) Tottenham 0
THE growing suspicion no team, aside from runaway leaders Chelsea, wants to win the Premier League appeared to be gaining credence after events at Anfield.
A contest for first place has long been in danger of becoming a title procession and coronation for Antonio Conte’s side but, immediately behind them, never has there been such parity - two points separating the five teams that cover second to sixth places.
Take Chelsea out of the equation and this would have been the most thrilling title race in Premier League history.
With Conte’s club so securely on top, the question nags as to whether the five challengers are playing at such a high level that none can pull away from the pack or whether they are all equally mediocre.
Spurs are the latest of the elite “chasing five” to come under such scrutiny after they completed their five away visits to their closest rivals with just two points - from draws at Arsenal and Manchester City.
Defeat brought to an end an impressive 11-game unbeaten run in league and cup but, even before Chelsea took on Burnley yesterday, that was enough to have manager Mauricio Pochettino effectively throwing in the title towel for another season and asking Spurs fans to look longer term.
“We will see. That is important,” said Pochettino when asked if his squad had sufficient depth.
“We are in a different project to Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. We are a club fighting for the Premier League with different tools in a different project.
"We will see if we can cope. If we have the squad, we will see. It is important our project is long-term and we can see if we can cope with all the competitions now.
“We are fighting. If you compare Tottenham with the other sides competing for the top four, maybe you say ‘wow, Tottenham deserve a lot of credit for where they are now, huh?’ We can’t compare with another team. Chelsea have a lot of players that know what it means to win and we are creating a winning mentality.
"After 11 games, something happened today. Liverpool have struggled since the beginning of the year but have a lot of good players. They know what it means to win, too. I am disappointed today but feel calm.”
The manner of Spurs’ defeat was all the more surprising given Liverpool’s poor opening to 2017, without a league victory and mired in their worst start to a calendar year since 1954.
But, directly from kick-off, Liverpool were unrecognisable from those previous 10 games this year, tearing into the visitors. The only surprise was they led by just two goals - both from returning Senegal international Sadio Mane - at the interval.
Given the manner in which Spurs surrendered the league title to Leicester 12 months ago and, in light of that statistic about their away performances against the top teams, it was hard not to reach the conclusion that there is an inherent mental fragility about this Pochettino team.
“You are a specialist in football and you know better than me,” said Pochettino.
“Sometimes it is not only about pushing the player to train and run and play, sometimes it is about coping with the level and the competition.
“It is important now to assess and be calm. Sometimes this happens. It is only our third defeat in the Premier League.
"Today we were poor and feel very disappointed but be careful. We are one point above Liverpool still.”
Pochettino may yet have the consolation of becoming the first Tottenham manager to qualify for the Champions League in consecutive seasons although, of course, two of the chasing five will be disappointed in that aim.
There is also the not- inconsiderable potential consolation of success in the Europa League or FA Cup.
But, in stark contrast, the mood around Liverpool turned 180 degrees following a victory that immediately preceded a 16-day break, forced on manager Jurgen Klopp by his team’s exit from the FA Cup, much to the German’s delight.
Klopp, whose next fixture takes his team to Leicester two weeks tonight, spoke of the enforced break as a “pre-season” for Liverpool who will fly to La Manga this week for warm weather training.
The performance harked back to the heady days of summer when Liverpool won at Arsenal, drew at Spurs and won at Chelsea in quick order and talk around Anfield was of winning championships.
“You know that when the season was 12 weeks old, in September and October, we were really flying and people were saying to me: ‘Oh my God, can you be champion?’” Said Klopp.
“If we played like this all the time, probably. If not, it will be difficult. Yes, we are able to do some really good things but sometimes things need time.
“It should not be in doubt what we really want and that we have really tried everything. If we have made some mistakes in the season, we already know it but we can only sort it at the end of the season.
"That’s what we want – to get everything that is possible out of this season and yes these boys are really able to do some outstanding, fantastic things but obviously we have to do them more consistently.
“That’s how a top team needs to think. At this moment we are in the top of the league, or around it, and that’s good. Now we need to carry on.”
Mignolet 6; Clyne 8, Matip 6, Lucas 7 (Klavan 82), Milner 6; Lallana 8, Henderson 7, Wijnaldum 8; Mane 9 (Alexander-Arnold 90), Firmino 8, Coutinho 6 (Can 77, 6).
Loris 7; Walker 6, Alderweireld 6, Dier 5, Davies 5; Dembele 6 (Sissoko 77, 6), Wanyama 7; Eriksen 5 (Winks 68, 6), Alli 7, Son 5 (Janssen 82); Kane 5.
A Taylor 6
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved