Tottenham Hotspur: the team to beat
This is a surprsing time at Tottenham Hotspur. Now at the stage of the season when the remaining games are counted down, they are just one stride away from the lead in the Premier League.
Their form, which has been exceptional since August, can no longer be marked off as a spurt or a run but rather the genuine level of a team good enough to win the title.
Behind Manchester United on goal difference, behind Manchester City by three points: Spurs have nearly caught up the two Manchester clubs despite losing badly to each of them back in August. Even more impressively, they have left their London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal eight and nine points behind them respectively.
Often January and February just see a sad drift towards what Arsenal fans call "St Totteringham's Day": the point, usually in March or April, at which it is mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish as the top north London side. Not this new year, though, as Tottenham continue to bound forward, and Arsenal struggle to keep up.
For Tottenham, a title challenge takes some adjusting to. For Rafael van der Vaart, formerly of Ajax and Real Madrid, it does not. "I think now everybody knows Tottenham have a great team and if we can keep playing like this we will be one of the favourites to win the title," he said after Wednesday night's comfortable 2-0 win over Everton. "But we are now getting so far in front we have to look up the table and not down!"
Van der Vaart's confidence is spreading to a squad, William Gallas aside, less familiar than him with competing at the top. "Everybody in the dressing room believes we can win the League, absolutely," he said. "We know we are good."
Spurs' position is particularly impressive given their traumatic start to the season. The poker game with Chelsea over the future of Luka Modric was eventually won by chairman Daniel Levy, but in August Modric's future was still in play, while Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor did not arrive until the final days of the month. The results were a 3-0 loss away at United before a 5-1 defeat to City at White Hart Lane .
"Apart from the first two games, we have played well," Van der Vaart recalled. "At that moment Manchester City were too good." Spurs' transformation since those two defeats has been remarkable: they have won 14 of their 18 League games since and drawn three.
Van der Vaart, like manager Harry Redknapp, believes those August arrivals have made the necessary difference. "I knew we had a great squad when I arrived but there were maybe a few parts missing," he said. "Now we have another fantastic striker and signing Scott Parker was really important for us. I think maybe they were the two missing links. Now you can see we are a fantastic team. Everybody can score, everybody can play. It's a nice mix."
Those two additions, along with goalkeeper Brad Friedel, have certainly been crucial, both ensuring one quality player where last season Spurs rotated between lesser options. Adebayor has made the role up front his own, providing a more effective focal point than Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe or Roman Pavlyuchenko did last season. He has nine League goals so far, and looks as interested as he has done at any time since he was at Arsenal.
Parker has provided the reliable excellence expected of a reigning Footballer of the Year. Just as Adebayor is the settled, physical partner for Van der Vaart, Parker is the settled, muscular partner for Modric. No more changing between Tom Huddlestone, Jermaine Jenas and Wilson Palacios: Parker is the keystone of the side, as well as the necessary platform for the subtlety and imagination of Modric.
The result is an exceptionally well-balanced and coherent team. While the two Manchester clubs have very well-stocked squads, Tottenham have a rather traditional first XI. There are good players on the fringes: Steven Pienaar, Defoe and Niko Kranjcar all struggle for games, but they are not part of any real rotation policy. That might leave the club more vulnerable to injuries than others, though. A bad injury to Adebayor, Modric or Gareth Bale would diminish the side.
That said, Tottenham were the only top-six side to go unbeaten through the Christmas and new year football programme, and they did so without the injured winger Aaron Lennon. Whether with an extra midfielder in Sandro, or an extra forward in Defoe, they had the flexibility and the options to cope. Their 2-0 win at Norwich, with Bale at inside-left, and three central midfielders, was one of their performances of the season.
The real test will be their remaining away games. Spurs' home form looks assured: since losing to City they have won eight at home and drawn only to Chelsea. "Nobody likes to come to White Hart Lane to play us because at home we are unbelievable," Van der Vaart said. Manchester United, on 3 March, remain the only side left to come to White Hart Lane who might disrupt their supremacy.
It is on the road where Spurs will win or lose the title. They still have to go to City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea. Assessing their chances is difficult: their only trip to a top-six team so far this year was the defeat at Old Trafford in August. This team, with Adebayor and Parker, has yet to travel to their main rivals. Whether they can perform on those stages will be one of the defining questions of the title race.
So the game at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday week will be crucial. "After next weekend against Man City we will know where we stand," Van der Vaart said.
City have lost three of their four games in 2012 so far. Redknapp said after Wednesday's win that the pressure was now on Roberto Mancini's side, and Van der Vaart reckons they can be ambushed next weekend: "City have many good players, but we are more like a team I think. So it's going to be an interesting game. They are not so consistent any more. They have lost a few games recently and maybe that's a little bit in their heads so we can take advantage."
East Manchester was the site of the making and the unmaking of Spurs' last two seasons. In May 2010 Peter Crouch's late header there launched Spurs into the Champions League, at City's expense. One year later, in the same fixture, an own goal from the same player sent City into the Champions League instead. This year, though, victory there could push Tottenham towards a different level of achievement entirely.
Hot Spurs: How Tottenham compare
Tottenham in the Premier League after 20 games
Premier League winners after 20 games
2010-11 Man Utd/1st, 44 pts
2009-10 Chelsea/1st, 45 pts
2008-09 Man Utd/2nd, 44 pts
2007-08 Man Utd/2nd, 45 pts
2006-07 Man Utd/1st, 50 pts
2005-06 Chelsea/1st, 55 pts
2004-05 Chelsea/1st, 49 pts
2003-04 Arsenal/2nd, 46 pts
2002-03 Man Utd/3rd, 35 pts
2001-02 Arsenal/1st, 39 pts
2000-01 Man Utd/1st, 46 pts
1999-00 Man Utd/2nd, 44 pts