Tottenham Hotspur will once again grapple with historical portents on Sunday when their bid to prevent Leicester City running away with the Premier League title sees them entertain Manchester United.
It is 15 years since Tottenham last won a home league game against United and they spurned one opportunity to reverse a long-standing trend last weekend when a 1-1 draw at Liverpool — where they have won just once in 22 league visits — allowed Leicester to open up a seven-point lead.
With Leicester visiting third-bottom Sunderland earlier in the day on Sunday, Spurs could be 10 points off the pace by kick-off, but manager Mauricio Pochettino says his side will not abandon hope.
“You need to believe in football that things can change,” he said.
“It’s important for us to be focused and prepared, but we can’t play when Leicester play. We can only do our job and be focused on the three points.
“We will see what happens with Leicester. It’s important for us to believe and to fight. There are six games ahead and anything can happen in football.”
While Tottenham continue to believe in a first league title since their feted league and FA Cup double of 1961, the omens for victory over United are not good.
They have not scored a goal against United in the league in three games under Pochettino, who has failed to record a victory over the men from Old Trafford in six attempts with Spurs and former club Southampton.
Of greater concern will be the fact that while Leicester have cranked out gritty 1-0 wins in five of their last six matches, Spurs have won only three times in the same period.
Predicting how long United’s fleeting bursts of form will last has proved a fool’s errand this season, but Louis van Gaal’s side appear to be on an upward curve, having won four of their last five league games to close to within a point of the Champions League places.
– High pressing style –
The treatment tables at United’s Carrington training base are also beginning to vacate themselves, while Van Gaal has seen his team lose just one of the seven games they have played to date against other teams in the top six.
These are different times, however, to the days when Alex Ferguson could motivate his players to beat Spurs with a simple “Lads, it’s Tottenham” — as former United captain Roy Keane revealed he once did — and Van Gaal is well aware of the threat that the north London club pose.
It took a fortuitous Kyle Walker own goal for Van Gaal to get the better of Pochettino on the season’s opening day and Spurs’ high pressing style could discomfit United, who were out-hustled by Liverpool in their recent Europa League defeat.
Pochettino has been touted as a potential successor to Van Gaal and the Dutchman has expressed admiration for the work that the former Argentina centre-back has produced at White Hart Lane.
“I think they have a very good squad. I have said that also last year,” Van Gaal said.
“I think he has made a team of this squad of individual players. They are pressing high, they are playing a very good positional game and they score goals. They score a lot of goals.
“They also have a lot of clean sheets, so it’s a very good team in organization structures, so I think that you can give credit to Mauricio Pochettino.”
With Spurs and United boasting the league’s two meanest defenses, it is unlikely to be a high-scoring affair.
Tottenham’s back line could be bolstered by the return of Belgian centre-back Jan Vertonghen, who has been out for almost three months with a knee problem.
United remain without captain Wayne Rooney, who will make his comeback from a knee injury for the club’s under-21 side on Monday, but Ashley Young and Phil Jones could both feature.
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