As the days begin to get longer, the Premier League has started to draw to a close. Most teams now only have ten games left to save or consolidate their season. Aston Villa still need eight points just to draw level with 18th place, the likes Newcastle and Swansea still have games in hand but with fixtures against Manchester City and Arsenal respectively on the horizon, it will not fill their supporters with much optimism. Nearer the top, the likes of Manchester United, West Ham, Southampton and now even Chelsea will not have given up all hope of wrestling fourth place from Manchester City. While last nights 2-2 draw between Leicester and West Brom has just made this title race even more intense. Spurs can go top with a victory, Arsenal can close the gap to three points and if City were to win both their games in hand they would be within four points of the top.
The battle at the top then, as ridiculously tight as is proving to be, is the focus of today's Game In Focus. Tottenham are looking to benefit from Leicester dropping points at home with a win that would see them top the table with only 10 games to go, while West Ham know that if they can string a few victories together while the top sides drop points as nerves and fatigue set in, they can find themselves battling for an unlikely European place.
West Ham have been good value for their place in the top half of the table this season. An impressive 2-2 draw with title chasing Manchester City in January coupled with a 2-0 victory of Liverpool earlier that month have followed their superb opening day 2-0 victory over Arsenal, a 3-0 win over Liverpool in August, a 2-1 win over struggling Chelsea and, perhaps the pick of the bunch, a 2-1 away victory against Manchester City. The above results convey that their position in the table is not down to chance. The appointment of Slaven Bilic has galvanised this West Ham side and seen them push the boundaries of their own ability and that has paid dividends.
Their signings have also helped pave the way for a new style of play. Gone are the days where their sole aim was to play root one football into Andy Carroll up front who would either knock the ball down for a teammate or head the ball on himself. This method is still used, but it is reserved for when West Ham need a goal in the final few minutes of a game. The loan signings Alex Song, Victor Moses and Manuel Lanzini have added different elements to this West Ham side while the old faithful of players such as Mark Noble, James Collins and Adrian in goal have added a powerful spine to the team, allowing the more creative players to play without trepidation. In particular the signing of Dimitri Payet has been a catalyst for the team. His trickery, ball retention, range of passing and footballing brain have turned a good West Ham side into one which can challenge for European football.
It perhaps shows the scope of the West Ham plan that a bid of nearly £40 million for Payet from an unknown Chinese club was rejected. In recent times West Ham would have sold a player if he would generate that kind of money. However it is clearly a backing from the owners that they feel this team can climb even higher in the table and that they know it would have an adverse effect on their pursuit of European competitions. If they can break into the Europa League then it is very likely they will continue to attract players of a higher quality and then push even higher. This all stems from the refusal to sell Payet and then getting him to sign a new contract.
Tottenham are in the situation that West Ham are looking to forge for themselves. Spurs have steadily rebuilt themselves from a team which depended on Gareth Bale to a side which has match winners all across the pitch. The initial splurge of money generated by the sale of Bale seemed to have been on the wrong players with Roberto Soldado costing in excess of £30 million having already returned to Spain. However the signings of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela have really come to fruition this season with both having a huge effect on the team with regard to their creativity.
In conjunction with this has been the rise of some very promising English talent. Harry Kane has scored 16 goals this season, the best return by an English striker bar that of Jamie Vardy (19). He has been amply reinforced by the rise of Dele Alli and Eric Dier. Both players have brought their own style of play to this Tottenham side and they compliment each other well. Alli is more akin to playing further forward with his marauding runs, consummate finishing and range of passing while Dier is more at home sitting deep, picking off passes and stopping attacks before they are allowed to progress. With Mauricio Pochettino at the helm it seems that the younger players are being encouraged to play with freedom allowing the entire Tottenham team to thrive.
Like West Ham, the more creative players have been allowed to focus more on their goal scoring because of a very solid defence. In Particular, Hugo Lloris has been in superb form in goal. The Frenchman has nine clean sheets so far and has been a driving force in Tottenham gaining the title of the meanest defence having only conceded 21 goals this season, five goals lees than Arsenal and Manchester United.
This balance between offence and defence has allowed Tottenham to mount a serious title challenge and leapfrog London rivals Arsenal into pole position for the Premier League. Many still believe that Leicester will begin to stutter and drop points as the season draws to a close and after last nights draw with West Brom it is an opinion which cannot be disregarded. While Tottenham can go top with a win, it is still Arsenal's to lose. If they can beat Swansea tonight they know that a victory over Tottenham on Saturday will draw them level with their London rivals and will place them only three points behind Leicester, should the Foxes win on the weekend too.
That is why this London derby between Tottenham and West Ham is so important. West Ham can apply pressure to those above them with a win while Tottenham can provide a buffer between them and Arsenal meaning that a loss, unless catastrophically bad, would not see Arsenal go above them. All these factors combined make this one of the most mouth-wateringly important London derbies for many years. Form wise, Tottenham are top taking 18 points from a possible 18 in their last six games while West Ham are 10th taking exactly half that amount. However a London derby is not decided on a team's position in the form table and this could prove to be a defining moment in both team's seasons.
Final predicted score:
West Ham 1