AFC Bournemouth
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 By Ian Darke

Tottenham are Premier League title contenders in this most open of seasons

One phrase crops up time and time again whenever old pros gather to talk about Tottenham Hotspur: they "flatter to deceive."

After all, even when they had Gareth Bale and Luka Modric in the team, Spurs' famous Lilywhite shirts were nowhere to be seen in the title race. They were specialists in finishing fourth or fifth, at a respectable distance from the real action.

When Bale went to Madrid for a mountain of money, the club's supermarket trolley dash to buy replacements yielded too many duds -- perhaps symbolised by the misfiring Roberto Soldado.

But something special is happening at White Hart Lane these days, and you sense a first title since Bill Nicholson's "Glory, Glory" days of 1961 is not out of the question. While attention has rightly been focused on Leicester City's astounding season, Spurs have been able to fly under the radar.

The initial disinterest was understandable. Spurs started with a defeat at Manchester United and failed to win any of their first four games. Cynics were wondering if Harry Kane, after his heroics in front of goal last season, was a one-season wonder as he failed to hit the target in the first eight games.

That theory was blown to bits as Kane ran riot with nine goals in six games in the autumn.

Suddenly, we noticed that manager Mauricio Pochettino's gifted young team had got to mid-December losing only one game. A once-erratic team had become more reliable and resilient while developing a useful mean streak. Spurs have won their past five games, scoring 16 and conceding only three.

Pochettino had converted skyscraper defender Eric Dier into a revelation as a holding midfielder, as witnessed by his England call-up in that position.

Likewise, the manager's punt on a third-tier kid called Dele Alli from MK Dons was looking like the bargain of the year. So far Alli has delivered seven goals and become a YouTube sensation with his volley at Crystal Palace.

The signing of Belgian international Toby Alderweireld gave an iffy defence exactly what it needed: an organiser and leader.

With Kane flying, the top-class Hugo Lloris in goal and much-improved form from Moussa Dembele and previous misfit Erik Lamela, Tottenham were looking a very good outfit.

The only worries have been a subdued season from playmaker Christian Eriksen and injuries to Ryan Mason and Jan Vertonghen.

A 3-0 win at Norwich on Tuesday made it three wins on the bounce in the league and lifted Spurs above rivals Arsenal into third place.

This is still a young side and there might be the odd slipup, but they carry the fearlessness of youth and a growing belief that they can lift the trophy in this most open of seasons. Spurs' trip to Manchester City on Feb. 14 and the derby at home to Arsenal on March 5 look like pivotal games.

Tottenham have the talent if they have the nerve and stomach for the fight.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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