Ledley King, face drooping with shock, pleaded with referee Howard Webb as Mario Balotelli hauled himself up from the floor in the 94th minute of Manchester City’s thrilling 3-2 win over Spurs on Sunday.
Tottenham’s captain gesticulated and shouted, but his heart wasn’t in it. He knew the game was up. City were handed an opportunity to win an absorbing contest against their gutsy opponents, one which Balotelli nonchalantly tucked away.
Having gone from inches of securing a memorable win to a debilitating loss, King’s clumsy challenge meant this was a game that Spurs could take only positives from, and not points.
Losses like Tottenham’s agonising defeat against City, with all its twists and turns and ultimate disappointment for the away side are akin to a 12-round war for a boxer; suffer too many and soon it becomes too much, physically and mentally. They gradually grind a team down, burdening them with psychological scars that become too much to take.
Harry Redknapp’s side have refreshingly challenged the status quo at the top of the table, as once challenegrs Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea faded into the distance. Their buccaneering brand of football has won admirers as well as points, providing a new look to a usually staid sharp end of the league table.
Tottenham were left devastated yesterday, but had no choice but to point to the positives; the fact they had matched the champions elect and could have - no, should have won - or the fact they had come back from the dead after handing a quickfire two goal lead to the most deadly side in the country.
Of course, Mario Balotelli’s presence on the field and alleged stamp on Scott Parker’s head will be poured over time after time, as will Jermain Defoe’s gut wrenching miss that typified the lurching, changeable nature of this game, but perhaps there is one positive that has been overlooked – in the eyes of most, their title tilt is over.
Ever since their mid-week win over Everton, Harry Redknapp and his men have been inundated with a single question; that of their status as title contenders.
That 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane sent the media and fans into overdrive; level on points with Manchester United, three points behind league leaders City and a home game against lowly Wolves coming up, the north London outfit were on the verge of being announced as the real deal.
All the while Redknapp struggled against the tide, answering wave after wave of questions about whether they could challenge at the top just as the likes of King, Defoe, and Gareth Bale were being asked the same thing.
The defeat against City has now surely burst the balloon. The buzz that surrounded White Hart Lane has now been replaced by a sobering realism that they won’t have it all their own way this season. And that is no bad thing.
Redknapp insisted all along that the priority was securing Champions League football (admittedly while doing little to dispel any title chitter-chatter) and now they must focus on their main objective which seemed a million miles off at the start of the season; making their way back into European football’s elite club.
Titles are not won off the back of a decent run of form or an odd purple patch, but season upon season of building, and while Tottenham may one day be title winners they must first build the foundations before reaching the top. They must get regular Champions League football.
The 1-1 draw with Wolves and the loss to City leaves Spurs eight points off the pace, while Chelsea have slowly cut the gap between them in 4th place and their London rivals above them in 3rd to five points when it once was eight points a couple of weeks ago.
A tough run of games which sees them take on all other members of the current top seven in little more than two months over February and March is a trial by fire for their hopes of keeping the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal at bay for the remainder of the season.
While gazing off hopefully in the distance it has been easy not to worry about what is going on over their shoulder, but now they must re-focus and make sure they get that precious top four spot, starting with their next Premier League fixture against Wigan on Tuesday.
The futures of Bale, Modric and a host of others rest on it – the title was always a fantasy, the prospect of no Champions League football at the lane next season would be a very grim reality indeed.
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