Spurs won’t throw in towel, but spirit and fixtures should see Chelsea over the line

CHELSEA
Trust in the masterplan
Antonio Conte (right) has been fortunate with injuries in his debut campaign, but whenever he has needed to turn to his back-up crew, they have invariably responded.

 

Pedro and Willian, who came off the bench, both scored in the 3-0 win at Everton but neither have been nailed-on first-choice selections for Conte this season.

Add to that Cesc Fabregas’ reduced role in the Premier League as the Italian has kept faith with virtually the same starting line-up week in, week out, and it could have potentially posed some problems when he did need to call on those players.

But when he has done they have all delivered and their manager believes this team spirit has helped take the team to the brink of the title, leading Tottenham by four points with four matches to go.

“It is great to have this type of player and for sure it is not easy every game to make the best decision between Pedro and Willian,” the Chelsea boss said.

“Also for me it is not easy to keep Cesc sometimes on the bench because I think Cesc is a player that in this part of the season is showing to be decisive in every moment if he starts the game — and also Willian.

“They are used to playing every game but they are showing me to be great men and fantastic players.”

Reason to be cheerful: A kind run-in means it would a huge surprise if the Blues can’t claim the nine points required to guarantee top spot. And good fortune with injuries looks set to continue, if the emojis David Luiz posted on Instagram yesterday implied the ankle problem picked up at Everton isn’t too serious.

Reason to be fearful: Spurs refuse to go away. Chelsea might have felt their bitter rivals’ spirit had been broken by FA Cup semi-final defeat, and again when Conte’s men clinically dispatched Everton at Goodison on Sunday, ahead of the North London derby. 

But Spurs responded gamely again and might be expected to take maximum points from here.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Cranking up the pressure

Crowned as kings of North London, Spurs now get first-mover advantage in the title race. They can close the gap on Chelsea to just a point if they can win a third successive London derby away to West Ham United on Friday.

“It’s good to play first,” said Harry Kane (far right). 

“Hopefully we can drop the gap to one point and then see what happens.

“We know what it’s like from when Leicester were playing last year before us. It’ll be a tough game away from home but hopefully we can get that win, put the pressure on and just wait and see.”

The progress on Tottenham’s new stadium is emblematic of a club on the rise, according to Kane.

“Every time we drive in as a squad now you can see how big that stand is getting.

“Everything is getting built up and it shows the way the club is going. We’ve got a fantastic manager, he’s one of the best in the world in my opinion, we’ve got a great squad with a real togetherness.

“We’re just going in the right direction. We can’t get carried away, even this season we’ve got four games left to try to win and it’s exciting times.”

Reason to be cheerful: Spurs can win a third successive London derby away to West Ham United on Friday. They’ve lost just twice in 10 games in league and cup against London opposition this season, both to Chelsea.

Reason to be fearful: Chelsea’s run-in looks too straightforward and despite the feelgood vibe at White Hart Lane, there are rumblings around Kyle Walker’s future, the full-back having been left out of the side in recent weeks.

Pochettino will have squad issues to address come summer, though Spurs’ chief concern will be holding onto the boss.

MANCHESTER CITY

Closing Pep’s first chapter

This has been a disappointing first campaign for Pep Guardiola in England, that FA Cup semi-final defeat by Arsenal ending any prospect of silverware.

Yet, with the sparkling — and now recovered — Gabriel Jesus on board, and some midfield — and particularly defensive — consolidation likely in summer, City will certainly be among the title favourites next season.

Guardiola is probably entitled to one trophyless season, given his achievements. And there’s a feeling now that City just need to put this campaign to bed with the minimum target achieved; Champions League qualification.

After the 2-2 draw at Middlesbrough, Guardiola said: “Now we have three games at home and those three games will decide whether we deserve next season to be in the Champions League or not.

“We have got to win games and make some good results at home.”

Reason to be cheerful: The return of Gabriel Jesus should help power Pep Guardiola’s side through a run-in featuring those three home games Guardiola mentioned and a trip to Watford. Jesus headed the equaliser at Middlesbrough and promised he is nearing 100% fitness.

Reason to be fearful: It is inconvenient that City’s next opponents, Crystal Palace, still have something to fight for. And after a solid start at the Riverside, City quickly became disjointed and might have lost but for Leroy Sane’s highly debatable penalty area tumble.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Weary regret at Old Trafford

A 14th draw of the Premier League season — and a 10th at home — has contributed to the growing impression that United have frittered away a promising season.

“After 10 draws at home, you think about the points that we’ve lost and thrown away and where we could have been in the league,” Ashley Young said after the 1-1 draw with Swansea on Sunday.

With the Europa League semi-final first leg at Celta Vigo next up, Jose Mourinho has switched from blaming his underperforming strikers to bemoaning the arduous schedule, indicating he might be forced to field an under-23 side against Crystal Palace in the last Premier League game of the season.

“You are punished for doing well and if we beat Celta we have the final on the Wednesday (May 24) and we play against Crystal Palace on the Sunday (May 21),” he said.

“Before that we play Southampton and, with all respect, we would be playing in disaster consequences. Maybe I can bring (academy coach) Nicky Butt and his team to play against Crystal Palace and hopefully Palace doesn’t need a game to stay in the division because it would be very, very bad if they needed the points for us to play with the U23s. It’s difficult.”

Reasons to be cheerful: Two bites of the Champions League cherry. Right now, Thursday’s trip to Celta Vigo looks more important than Sunday’s visit to Arsenal.

And although problems for Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly have lengthened the injury list, at least the domestically banned Marouane Fellaini can travel to Vigo. That is something to be cheerful about, right?

Reasons to be fearful: Whatever about the fixture pile-up, Mourinho appears to have talked United into tiredness. After nine games in April there is no let up between now and the end of the campaign, with United facing games every three or four days.

ARSENAL

Despair turning to anger?

“We needed to win to keep our Champions League finishing position alive,” admitted goalkeeper Petr Cech following Sunday’s dismal derby defeat at White Hart Lane. 

“I feel angry and disappointed because obviously this is not a game we wanted to lose and this is a very big disappointment for us.”

The furious Arsenal faithful will at least be pleased if some of their own anger is seeping into the dressing room.

Right now, the prospect of a cup final with Chelsea brings more concern than solace to a dispirited fan base, with former striker Ian Wright admitting the uncertainty around the club and Arsene Wenger’s future means world class players would opt to sign for Tottenham, rather than his old club.

“Of course right now you are going to sign for Spurs and the longer it takes for them to sort out what is going on upstairs we are no longer going to be able to attract that type of player.

“They are going to go to another club, rather than going to our club.”

Reason to be cheerful: At least Arsenal have it in their own hands to overtake Manchester United, with a game in hand and next Sunday’s fixture against Mourinho’s weary side at the Emirates. But they now need slips from either Manchester City or Liverpool.

Reason to be fearful: Any sense that Wenger had righted a sinking ship with a rare switch to a three-man defence began to look more like a desperate rearrangement of deckchairs as Tottenham overwhelmed their rivals in the derby. 

So demoralised did Arsenal look at the finish, you wouldn’t bet much on Wenger securing a first ever league win over Mourinho, despite United’s travails.


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