Eriksen closes the gap for Tottenham with precious winner at Crystal Palace
This was a victory which spoke volumes for Tottenham Hotspur’s stubborn conviction that the title race is not done and dusted. Far from it, in fact. Mauricio Pochettino’s team laboured for a while and even when they were in the ascendancy after the interval, reward eluded them for a while as Crystal Palace, a team reborn, resisted with everything they could. But, in the end, the visitors’ quality told.
It was Christian Eriksen who broke the resistance, belting a low shot into the corner from 25 yards with Palace long since forced into a full-scale retreat, and ensured Chelsea must remain on edge for a while longer. An eighth league win in succession, a blistering run, has moved Spurs back to within four points of their rivals from across the capital, with Sunday’s fixtures suddenly feeling critical yet again. While the leaders confront Everton at Goodison Park, Spurs must maintain their form in a north London derby. They will tear into that fixture with belief maintained that their pursuit can still yield the trophy.
Even with Palace’s startling recent upturn in form, the true test that awaited Spurs had always been psychological. This team may have been untouchable in the league for months, but the restoration of Chelsea’s imposing advantage at the top on Tuesday had been unnerving, particularly in the wake of that FA Cup semi-final defeat to the leaders over the weekend.
Momentum had switched as time ticks down in this race. Pochettino’s side had arrived in south London with absolutely no margin for error. Perhaps that explained the initial sloppiness in the pass, the visitors’ delivery cramped by pangs of anxiety. There was also a lack of fluency which undermined their approach.
It took time for Spurs to find any kind of rhythm and manoeuvre the ball with proper precision yet with Palace retreating into their shell and forever clogging up the play, the best the challengers could manage in a tense and tight opening period was a pair of scuffed attempts from Eriksen.
Luka Milivojevic blocked the first, Wayne Hennessey easily claiming the second, with Spurs crowded out too often. For all that Mamadou Sakho was constantly at full stretch to snuff out Harry Kane’s physical threat, the sight of Kyle Walker or Toby Alderweireld chancing their arms wildly from distance suggested desperation. Victor Wanyama, already booked for a crunching tackle on Milivojevic, could only breathe a sigh of relief when another foul, on Andros Townsend, did not prompt a second card. That rather summed it up.
Palace did their best to unsettle at the other end, with Townsend and Wilfried Zaha – a player Spurs covet – menacing as they buzzed around Christian Benteke. Yet their real joy came from James McArthur’s support runs from deep, the Scot making the most of a rare start with Yohan Cabaye rested, to snap into Mousa Dembélé or drift unchecked into the penalty area. The hosts needed the ball to fall kindly for him to make a proper impact but as the teams retreated at the interval, it was Pochettino who wore a look of concern.
His replacement of both Dembélé and Wanyama at the interval reflected a level of dissatisfaction at everything he had witnessed.
Son Heung-min immediately injected some urgency on the left though it was Walker, making inroads down the opposite flank, who flung over the centre which Dele Alli, bursting beyond Martin Kelly, somehow steered wide of the far post. By then Palace were wounded, their defence weakened by the loss of Sakho.
The Liverpool loanee, such an inspiration since emerging into this team, landed awkwardly after tangling in yet another aerial challenge with Kane and immediately clutched his left knee in clear agony. Sam Allardyce, already without Scott Dann and James Tomkins for the rest of the season, shook his head in the dugout in anticipation of the Frenchman joining his ranks of walking wounded. This was a sorry way for an eye-catching loan stay to end.
It rather deflated the hosts, whose ambitions appeared to shrink into a game of grim containment given their inability to retain possession for any length of time. Spurs, their zest rediscovered, forced them back and swarmed forward with bite in search of a precious lead, with Eriksen dictating their play and Alli revelling while in close support of Kane. Kelly and Damien Delaney flung themselves at anything that moved in a bid to suffocate the threat, but Palace found no respite.
Hennessey claimed Kane’s near-post header but there was no stopping Eriksen’s fizzed attempt from distance which dipped past his outstretched right hand and billowed the net. Spurs had their win. They will believe they can still have their title.