Well, that wasn't supposed to happen. The hungry lions are still prowling, just about. But on a cold, raucous night at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur found themselves fraying a little at the edges against an ornery West Bromwich Albion.
By the end of a horrible night for Spurs, Eric Dier had left the pitch looking groggy. Dele Alli could also face a season-ending ban depending on the contents of the referee Mike Jones's report and the Football Association response. And Tottenham's title challenge had been effectively derailed by a visiting team who were quick to the tackle, full of fight, and relentlessly harangued by their manager who, if he is dreaming of the beach already, it's likely to be Omaha or Utah, June 1944.
Spurs came here on a hard-pressing rampage, a blur of goals, movement and lissome, youthful charm. At which point: enter Tony Pulis. Tottenham hit the woodwork three times, but West Bromwich were excellent in just the right way and throughly deserved their point from a 1-1 draw that emphasised, as Spurs failed to close out the game, how often Leicester City have managed to do just this.
Beyond which the story here is likely to be Alli, who was hustled and bumped out of this game, betraying his frustration with a punch to Claudio Yacob’s waistband in the first half, a first significant act as the reigning PFA young player of the year. Given Jamie Vardy’s charge for mouthing off, it would be astonishing if Alli were to escape punishment for a punch, even a fairly limp one. A three-match ban could be in the offing if violent conduct is the verdict. Quite how violent conduct couldn’t be the verdict is another question entirely.
For all that, Mauricio Pochettino was keen to emphasise that this has been a fine season, whatever the end note. At the end, the home fans stayed to cheer, albeit not for long. Before that, even on a night of fraught, season's-end football, there was a sense here at times, whatever the destination of the title, of a group of fans still swooning with the first flush of passion for this young team.
There were places this week for Danny Rose, Toby Alderwiereld, Harry Kane and Alli in the PFA team of the year. And for a while it looked as though they really did have it in them here to push this chase another step. At times in the early stages the only discordant note was the constant barked commentary from Pulis as he capered about in his rectangle, immaculate as ever in ice-white trainers and tailored tracksuit.
Christian Eriksen pinged in the deep free-kick that led to a deserved opening goal, Craig Dawson somehow managing to nutmeg his own goalkeeper with his back, while lying on the ground. Dawson would later head West Brom's equaliser, karmic reward for his part in a convincing second half. What next, then, for Alli? Young, talented English players rarely escape without some kind of vilification and already there have been whispers about Alli's aggression, his tendency to snipe a little. Fingers will be wagged. Moralising sermons will be dredged up. It is to be hoped Alli can simply serve whatever ban comes his way and learn from the experience. He remains a thrilling presence and an excellent choice as the young player of the year.
Indeed he has been arguably the best player in the league for the past month or so, with three goals and four assists in the seven games before last night, still running and chasing like an overgrown baby calf and enacting a very public transformation into fearless high-class midfield stormtrooper.
His versatility comes in part from his ability to take possession anywhere, to protect the ball and move it on, always carrying that mental GPS; the nearest turning, alternative routes, an entire shifting geometry around him. Here he started in the No10 role, loping across the width of the pitch as Spurs settled into a spell of lateral possession.
Ominously, though, West Bromwich were quick to nip at his ankles, fouling him three times in two minutes at one stage, the third a lunge from Yacob that drew a response, as no doubt it was meant to. Pulis always has a plan. Often it’s this plan. Alli almost got his revenge immediately, feeding a delightfully nudged pass into the feet of Harry Kane, whose shot was tipped superbly on to a post by Boaz Myhill.
Then came the moment that has already been replayed endlessly, in vine and video clip. As Jacob came close on the edge of the penalty area Alli seemed, in slow motion, to turn, look at him and swing a low, slappy body punch into his stomach. It was a continuation of some sniping between the pair of them. Provocation is no excuse, however, and Alli will surely face an FA charge. Hopefully without too much hysteria.
He is still startlingly young, his rise startlingly fast. The fact that Tottenham failed to win this game is a fairly hefty punishment in itself, Alli’s own marginalising by the end part of the same process that drew that horribly callow reaction.
Opponents will continue to chip away at him now. One of Alli’s real assets is his ability to make mistakes, to galumph around at times like the teenager he was until very recently, without losing his rhythm or his sense of menace. It is a quality of resilience that will no doubt be tested in other ways in the next few days.