This game was approaching its denouement, with Mauricio Pochettino a picture of agitation on the edge of his technical area, when Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Kane finally found their reward. Sustained pressure had thrust Crystal Palace further and further into retreat, their back-line rejigged with James Tomkins a victim of cramp, when Christian Eriksen flung over a corner which was met by Harry Kane, peeling away from the muddle of bodies in the box.
The England striker had been guilty of two glaring misses up to then but, having held off the disorientated substitute Damien Delaney, his header was cushioned delightfully to arc over Wayne Hennessey, via a touch from the goalkeeper’s outstretched had, and over two Palace players on the line. This team are back in the top four, at least until Chelsea play at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, with their 15-match unbeaten run their best since 1999.
Dele Alli departed the turf with a wink to the home support, infuriated at his eagerness to claim a penalty, flashing up the scoreline with his hands as he entered the tunnel. Spurs are a rising force in this division, their trajectory upwardly mobile. So relentless had been their pursuit of a winner against massed defence that Pochettino might take as much satisfaction from a result like this as a win against Manchester United, or a draw at Juventus. Momentum is with them approaching the run-in for that race for the top four.
This had become an exercise of attack versus defence. Palace, outside the bottom three only on goal difference, had benefited from a fortnight to prepare for this fixture though, in truth, their game-plan was never likely to extend beyond stifling Spurs’ intent. Roy Hodgson’s ranks have been crippled by injuries, with 12 first-team players currently clogging up the treatment room. Resources were so stretched that he included four youngsters in the squad – including the England U17s World Cup winner and former Spurs academy winger Nya Kirby – one of whom, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, was charged from the outset with quelling Eriksen. For a club that has long prided itself on producing its own, the fact the 20-year-old was actually Palace’s first academy graduate to make a full league debut in 2,148 days felt rather stark.
They harried and hassled admirably, maintaining their shape as best they could while Eriksen clipped those trademark passes over the back-line for team-mates to collect on the charge, and threatened sporadically courtesy of Andros Townsend’s pace, Alexander Sørloth’s muscular running or Luka Milivojevic’s delivery at set-plays. There was plenty to admire in their rugged resolve, even if cracks opened up at times. Patrick van Aanholt’s horribly sliced clearance from Alli’s diagonal had presented the ball to Kane in front of goal early on, with Wayne Hennessey duly conjuring a remarkable reaction save.
Spurs had been miffed not to be awarded an earlier penalty, Hennessey having clipped Ben Davies in his follow through as the full-back reached Eriksen’s free-kick and delivered across goal. Yet, while the visitors’ tempo had slacked at times in that opening period, it was more upbeat and sustained after the interval. Quite how Kane planted a volley wide from point-blank range was a mystery, the striker’s body shape awkward as he met Eriksen’s glorious first-time delivery, lofted into the six-yard box with the outside of his left boot.
That opportunity had stemmed from a period of blanket possession, Spurs tidily and patiently pulling Palace out of position with their cross-field passes before sensing the moment to deliver something more incisive. With the hosts utterly unable to clear their lines, respite was only ever temporary. Hennessey denied Serge Aurier, Eriksen’s follow-up choked by the mass of bodies clad in red and blue and cluttering up the goal-mouth, then dived full length to his right to turn a Davies shot behind.
The rearguard was desperate quite often, but maintained even with Tomkins cramping up while attempting a clearance – he had to be replaced, adding to the injury concerns – and midfielders working feverishly to hold Tottenham at bay. Centres fizzed across their goal-line, Aurier somehow failing to connect at the far post on Davies’ delivery, before Palace cracked at the last. Hodgson sat thumping his head back against his seat in the dug-out in livid frustration that a set-piece had eventually prised his team apart though, in truth, the level of in-game re-organisation to his back-line must have tempted such a fate. This was cruel. For Spurs, their pressure constant, it will have felt like the reward they deserved.
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