Tottenham brimming with confidence while Man City plagued by uncertainty
MANCHESTER, England -- Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was back to his characteristically measured self by the time he faced the media after full-time at the Etihad. When he did lower his guard, the impression was a telling one.
"It's true that our supporters can dream," Pochettino said about 35 minutes after he joined his players in celebrating their 2-1 win in front of the traveling faithful.
Put together, actions and words felt like something of a green light: For all Pochettino's words of caution and season-long resistance to media hype, it would take a master illusionist to persuade anyone that Tottenham are not major players in the title argument now. This was the nearest anyone will get to confirmation of their credibility from the horse's mouth.
That had already been made clear on the pitch. Tottenham will have more free-flowing afternoons, but if you need both quality and a dose of luck to win a title, they enjoyed both here. Pochettino was predictably coy when asked about the penalty decision that gave Spurs a 1-0 lead -- "I didn't see it" gives rise to obvious jokes, but he had little cause to scramble for a replay -- but referee Mark Clattenburg's decision to give a penalty against Raheem Sterling was generous.
Even so, Tottenham's winning goal showed team and manager at their best. It raised an eyebrow or two when Erik Lamela was introduced in place of Dele Alli, seven minutes from time ahead of a more conservative option, but Manchester City had left themselves open in midfield by replacing the quietly effective Fernando with Kelechi Iheanacho at 1-0 down. City continued to threaten after Iheanacho's equalizer, but Lamela's surging run exposed a number of recurring flaws -- a creaking Yaya Toure and a rash Nicolas Otamendi among them -- at the first time of asking, and Tottenham had picked off their opponents with their only real chance in open play.
"Always in football, if the result is positive, it's good, and if it's negative, you made a mistake," Pochettino said, getting into more familiar mode. But he admitted Lamela brought extra "energy" to the team in the latter stages, and that demonstrated Pochettino's ability to use his weapons with care. Tottenham is certainly not the biggest squad of the top four clubs, but it is managed with a lucidity that leaves little to chance, and this was a carefully thought out change that might yet prove a defining one.
The picture is far hazier for Manchester City. It would be stretching the point to draw conclusions between their disintegration in consecutive home fixtures against title rivals and the spectre of Pep Guardiola, but the plan certainly changes after the end of this season, and Manuel Pellegrini, who made two references after the game to having only "14 players," is in danger of having to simply muddle through for the next three months.
City could have helped themselves with simple things in recent weeks. There have been justifiable complaints about refereeing decisions and injuries, but the repeated failures in midfield and defence owe more to poor application. City did not play badly here, and Pellegrini's decision to start with a tight, compact midfield certainly held Tottenham at arm's length. They offered little space, and it was instructive that during the first half both Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling tracked back to intercept the long transitions from defence to the wings that characterize many of the visitors' buildups.
The problem was that City did not look threatening until behind, and the fact that this approach was required at all spoke to the position in which they find themselves. While Pellegrini's fury at Clattenburg was clear, he will know that the stark admission he made later was far more pertinent.
"I think they are better teams than our team, if we cannot beat them," Pellegrini said of City's title rivals, after it was pointed out that his team has yet to defeat a top-four side this season.
That is the rub of it. City are being defeated by better sides, units with tighter organisation and more purpose, and the deputies for players such as Vincent Kompany -- well-protected on his return until Tottenham's winner -- and Aguero have, for one reason or another, not been fit for purpose. When the big questions have been asked, their chickens have come home to roost.
"We had two games here at home against teams fighting for the title with us," Pellegrini said. "A very important six points, and we never expected not to win them, but we must keep fighting. It's very important to start working again tomorrow, and I believe that everything can happen in football."
The point was well made. City still have 12 games to overcome a six-point gap to the top, and far stranger things have occurred than that kind of turnaround. But this is starting to feel like a team in terminal decline -- and perhaps one that knows it. It would take a tremendous effort now to give Pellegrini the title-winning send-off that few would begrudge him.
Compare the uncertainty at City, which will almost certainly bear a far different complexion a year from now under Guardiola, with the confidence of their opposition.
"It is important to show that we can," Pochettino said. "It's important to tell you that we are still the youngest squad in the Premier League, and it's important that this game gives them an experience they put inside themselves.
"When you start to feel that you can come to play in a stadium like Manchester City and win, it is a very important thing for the future."
The future. Pochettino is obsessed with it, and he signed off answers to two questions here by stressing the need to prepare for Thursday's Europa League tie against Fiorentina. Tottenham's future looks clear and bright, but behind the public restraint, Pochettino would be forgiven for having a dream or two of his own about what the present is turning up too.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.