Man City 1 Tottenham 2
Spurs breaking hearts on Valentines Day. Mostly those belonging to Sky Sports. I've never wanted anything more in my footballing life than to win the title this season. To stick two fingers up at the media clique and their blatant despondency at seeing us upset the established hierarchy. Although quite how we circumnavigate becoming the very thing we hate and they love will be altogether a different animal to tame. I'll worry about that after I see an open bus parade in N17.
The broken voices of Martin Tyler Niall Quinn when Christian Eriksen slotted the ball home after Erik Lamela's brilliant run and pass was glorious. Not that I heard their grieving at the time of the goal (I've re-watched countless times since). I was too busy screaming like a man possessed.
YES YES COME ON COME ON COME ON
Punching and chest pumping and releasing over eighty minutes of stress in one defining celebration. Jesus Christ what an intense game of football. Deep into injury time I was in the foetal position screaming for the ref to blow the whistle.
My daughter stood at the bottom of the stairs staring into the living room, tentatively quizzing, "Are you okay daddy?"
Still focused on the television, I responded, "Everything is fine. It's just Tottenham".
The things that you do to me, THFC. Cupids arrow through my heart.
This game was all about holding our nerve, coping with the pressure and most of all it was about winning. No matter what and how, winning the game was imperative for reasons of impact and helping to drown the hyperbole accompanied by commentary like 'the tide is turning' (made after City made it 1-1).
Mathematically, it's not season making or breaking but we've spoken so often about cementing the mentality to reinforce the belief that we're in a title race. It's a test of mettle and a statement of intent. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a title race. If you refused to believe it before then you've go to admit it now.
As much as I've personally banged the drums of positivity all season I was still nervous during the game. I knew this every time I stood up. My legs felt like jelly. If you're going to separate yourself from the expected default position of pretenders and prove to everyone - within the club and outside of it - that you're a contender, then you've got to land a knock-out punch. Now the game is done and dusted I think the way it played out was perfect. Taking the lead, suffering an equaliser and then having to survive City surging forward...all of it perfect.
Because at no point did we falter. We didn't lose our composure. Sure it was uncomfortable at times. City with this line-up are formidable in the centre of the park yet we matched them with our work ethic. We got lucky a few times (woodwork included) but there was no white flag of surrender. No capitulation. No errors birthing more errors. That isn't something present day Spurs are associated with. Patience and no panic buttons is. That's been our benchmark all season. Just waiting for the opportunity to take control. We lived on the edge but our players are so self-aware and never lose their momentum of movement, always alert, always seeking out that game changing chance.
Four Spurs players swarmed Yaya Touré, Lamela broke at pace with simplicity of directness. Eriksen took the pass and cool as you like sent the away end into a state of epic scenes. This was the boxer on the ropes that shuffles and lands an uppercut that cleans knocks-out the opponent that had dominated the last few rounds.
Yes, the penalty was dubious. I've seen it a few times and it's questionable why Mark Clattenburg was so certain so quickly. You know what, who cares? We got away with one? And? You want me to list all the ones that have gone against us? I can think of several City have had in recent years. I'll gladly accept this as the universe balancing itself out in our favour and stamping out the injustice we've endured.
Their goal was a superb sweeping move, a brutal slap. I can't deny that. I guess I could complain about the defending and space that allowed Kelechi Iheanacho to bury it past Hugo Lloris. No need to pretend that City are not a good team. Sure, they've been fairly poor against the top eight clubs (six points from a possible thirty). However, this was still a mightily strong side and they produced some heart in the mouth moments. They also kept Kane relatively quiet and made us work all over the pitch and defend resolutely when on the back-foot. Which is why it was so beautiful when we re-took the lead and sucked the life out of the Eastlands.
The game felt like an eternity, waiting for it to end, after the 2-1. Lloris with a touch as pivotal as any of the goals scored, palming the ball away to deny City at the death. It was a miraculous defence of his goal. He's been doing this all season and on this occasion won us the match with his fingertips. The defending of the back four, especially the centre-backs was top drawer. Sergio Agüero, the tormentor of Spurs, was subject to a game of pass the parcel after he was carefully placed into a box and shared between Toby and Kevin.
And here we are, second, two points off the top. We've yet to be outclassed or out-fought (just out-lucked a few times, not even enough times to claim it as a handful). We rarely concede two goals in a game. The consistency is ridiculous compared to anything I've known in my life-time. I've said it before that it makes a mockery of how badly managed we've been but I'm okay with that. It's taken us this long to recover from 1987. At least we've recovered.
Mauricio Pochettino has instilled pride and identity into this club and has united the fanbase. Considering how fragmented we've been for several seasons, that's a minor miracle. We're united because we love these players and there's a connection that syncs in with the football and desire to improve and do so with grounded resilience. It's all believable. Which is why most of us are suffering emotionally, trying desperately to work out how to handle it all.
It's stuff like Kevin Wimmer, coming into the team and excelling. Cliché klaxon...it's like he's been there all season. Or Erik Lamela, often maligned, off the bench to craft a moment made out of his sheer willingness to get the ball forward. He's like a mix of the person that swaggers around White Hart Lane wearing the Chirpy outfit and peak Neo in the Matrix. When he's on it, he's about as composed and visionary as anyone on the pitch. Danny Rose, an absolute hero on the day, is another prime example. Go back some seasons and he was often tagged as being ordinary and not good enough for us. The club was mocked for handing him a five year contract. The lads transformation proves just how important guidance and development is.
Mousa Dembele an other example, utterly lost at Spurs with no genuine responsibility or influence and now a beast with the ball at his feet. This is attitude and application being elevated by solid coaching. Even Harry Kane with his non-stop football since last summer is still leading the front-line. Did he feel the pressure when he stood to take the penalty? Not a chance. Our fitness is showing no signs of burn-out. All this with one forward. Imagine if we had more. Then again, that Spurs forward line is seamless with its interchanging. For now, there's no complaints about that last transfer window.
I could go on.
Son Heung-min was effective*. Another real team player, covering ground relentlessly. He's going to be imperative next season. I can see him being far more involved in goals too. Son is more polished than Lamela in terms of consistent product and linking up whereas Lamela does offer those telling moments of genius but is perhaps less reliable across the entirety of the game. Both know how to press and both offer something that can't be ignored. Options.
*I'm going to need to re-watch as I thought he did well, not always tidy in possession, but always looking for the ball.
Tom Carroll always does a job for us. Compared to his City counterparts he can be mistaken for one of the mascots wandering onto the pitch. Then he takes a touch and you realise he's just another disciple of Pochettino, recycling the ball and cleaning up with focused intent. Basically, every single squad player is ready to go. Like Poch says; suffer in training so you won't suffer on the pitch. We are the kings of discipline, no clown prince to be seen in this squad.
Eric Dier. Don't even need to say anything for this one.
He's changed the culture at the club without sacrificing our style. He's fine tuned it so that there's no soft centre and there's functionality all across the team. He's tightened us up, made us professional but still with plenty of spark. We haven't even got started yet! This is ground zero.
I don't care how giddy this all reads. This team is still young and still learning. It explains the passages of play during the game when perhaps we over-played the ball and lost some sharpness with our passing. Maybe it was a tactical ploy to slow the game down and we weren't quite making the ball travel well. But it was just pockets of play this occurred in. Our shape was never lost. Our resolve got tested. We matured a little more in the space of ninety minutes. Games like this are invaluable. The reason it was so high pressured was because we made it that way with everything we've accomplished this season. How else can you forge the qualities it takes to become a very good side if you don't experience encounters like this?
Add to it our away form, our goal difference. The rock that is Toby Alderweireld. The pressing, oh my, the pressing. Tottenham are masters of suffocating space. Illustrated through-out this particular encounter, one that differs from recent games because of that extraordinary hype that came attached.
Spurs stood up against everyone and everything, including our own demons. The players matched the words of their coach and believed. We've got ourselves a team. The real thing. Leaders all over the pitch. Players playing for each other. Essentials we've lacked for a generation or two (aside from one or two sides in amongst the mediocrity). We are fledgling yet supremely confident we can go on to achieve anything we want. I loved the way the team went over to thank the fans, with Poch involved, hugs and all. Again, I'll mention the connection we've got with them. It finally fits. We finally belong. This team has been built for us and not hastily put together out of desperation.
No matter what the future holds, echoes of glory and all that, how can we possibly not go for the jugular and really p*ss everyone off by doing the unimaginable this season?
Every game left is massive. This feeling, it's brand new but I like it. The brain crushing pressure to want the win and avoid the loss, it's soul wrecking yet ultimately wondrous but could easily be devastating. This is life at the top. Twelve more wars to get through.
What a brilliant season this is turning out to be.