Spurs lose their nerve to leave Leicester on the brink
Craig Dawson’s header grabs West Brom a point and leaves Foxes one win from title
Tottenham’s title challenge unravelled as they drew 1-1 with West Brom. Photograph: Getty
Tottenham Hotspur 1 West Bromwich Albion 1
At the final whistle, it was a sudden, damp silence. Tottenham Hotspur chose a bad night for their nerve to start unravelling and the ramifications could be serious bearing in mind the spin-off benefits for Leicester City, squatting defiantly at the top of the Premier League with a seven-point lead.
At this stage of the season Spurs knew they had to win all their remaining fixtures and their inability to see off this obdurate West Bromwich Albion side means it could all be over this weekend.
By that stage the Premier League’s second-placed team might also be taking in a three-match ban for Dele Alli that would effectively end his season, having swung what appeared to be a punch into the midriff of Claudio Yacon during the first half. Alli is relying on the leniency of the Football Association’s disciplinary unit for an offence that was seen by the match officials and in all likelihood he could conceivably be charged with violent conduct.
Yet the most grievous damage for Spurs came in the 73rd minute when Craig Dawson headed in the corner for the goal that ultimately means Leicester can announce themselves as the new champions by beating Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Spurs have given everything in their bid to catch the leaders but it was a ragged second half from Mauricio Pochettino’s players, squandering the gift of Dawson’s own-goal 33 minutes into a first half that had left the impression they were heading for a relatively straightforward win.
For the first time, there were obvious signs of tension and those were moments when West Brom showed an attacking intent that simply had not been there earlier in the match.
The pressure was near-unremitting at the start but Spurs were facing a team that unashamedly bases its entire ethos on defensive structure, strong tackling and rigid organisation, with a manager on the touchline whose frequent exhortations of “get into them” offered another insight into their tactics. There are only one team, Aston Villa, who have managed fewer goals than West Brom this season but, equally, there was never any danger that a side managed by Tony Pulis would crumple as obligingly as Swansea City had done the previous day in Leicester.
For Spurs, that meant it was a night when they needed to show a degree of patience as well as the refined, soft-touch football that saw Dele Alli gliding away from opponents or, best of all, the brilliant piece of improvisational skill with which Mousa Dembélé eluded Darren Fletcher in the first half. Pochettino’s team hit the woodwork twice in the opening 12 minutes and a lesser side might have started showing signs of apprehension when their early onslaught failed to produce a breakthrough goal.
Not this team, though. Spurs simply kept advancing and nobody could possibly say the opening goal was unwarranted even if there was a great deal of fortune attached to it. Christian Eriksen’s swinging free-kick from the right was arched with great expertise into the penalty area. Dawson was trying to prevent Jan Vertonghen applying a decisive touch but as the two players went sprawling on the six-yard line the ball landed beneath West Brom’s right-back, rolled out and squirted past the goalkeeper Boaz Myhill.
The goal came at a good time for Spurs, interrupting their only lull of the first half. Pochettino’s men did not reach the same exhilarating heights that saw them win 4-0 against Stoke City in their previous assignment. Even so, their ability to move the ball through midfield, playing with width and penetration, with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose such fine overlapping fullbacks, created plenty of problems for their opponents.
Harry Kane has been scoring so freely it came almost as a jolt that he could not produce a more clinical finish with the team’s first opportunity. Kane’s slick exchange of passes with Alli had opened up the visitors’ defence but he did not get enough power on his shot and Myhill turned the ball against the post. Not long afterwards, Eriksen’s free-kick skimmed the top of the crossbar and Albion were spared again.
Eriksen was also prominently involved in the move, 12 minutes after the restart, when Spurs hit the woodwork for the third time. The home team had lost some of their momentum in the early stages of the second half but Eriksen’s urging run on the left created the chance and Erik Lamela was unfortunate to see his shot come back off the far post.
That was not the only time Eriksen’s ability to run with the ball and pick out team-mates stood out. Dembele had another fine game but Alli and Kane could not keep up their early menace and Spurs must fear retrospective disciplinary action for the Professional Footballers’ Association’s new young-player-of-the-year award.
As punches go, it was a short, low swing, rather than an old-fashioned haymaker, but the television cameras pick up everything these days and in the worst-case scenario it would be a deeply unsatisfactory way for him to close his season.
Nothing, however, will have hurt Spurs more than the effect of Dawson heading in the equaliser from a corner that also resulted in Eric Dier being injured. Salomon Rondon had already come close to scoring with two chances of his own and the body language of the Spurs players at the end showed they know the significance of that goal.