This weekend brings the final chapter in Tottenham Hotspur’s top-three trilogy, as Harry Redknapp’s team travels to Manchester United. Having upset the odds to beat both Arsenal and Chelsea, Spurs can complete an unlikely treble of successive victories against the three clubs who have been fiercely challenging for the Premier League title.
Having had home advantage for both games against their London rivals, Tottenham face a trickier challenge in travelling to the Theatre of Dreams. United looked like they had as good as handed the title to Chelsea until their last gasp winner at Manchester City, having endured a dour goalless draw at Blackburn Rovers a week earlier, and will now have a real reason to put up a fight on Saturday. United did not look particularly threatening at the City of Manchester Stadium but still ground out the result they needed, and Redknapp will expect to face a bigger performance at Old Trafford. With Wayne Rooney a week further into his recuperation from injury, the Spurs back line can expect to face a stiffer test than the limp offering from Didier Drogba a week ago. Skipper Ledley King missed that game, with the visit of the Blues coming too soon for his ailing knees having played the full 90 minutes against the Gunners. It is always hard to tell whether King will be fit until he is actually lined up for the pre-match handshake, but it is likely that he will come in for Sebastien Bassong in what may be the only change to the line-up. Bassong’s performances this season warrant more than a status as first-reserve but if his showing against Chelsea deserves him to keep his place, King’s display against Arsenal was even better.
After two sterling performances in a row, and a week of rest since the last game, Redknapp will be loathe to tinker too much with a successful formula. The King or Bassong decision aside, the only real dilemma for the gaffer is whether to fast track Wilson Palacios back in to the team. The Honduran battler missed the two derby matches through suspension after racking up ten yellow cards just before the amnesty date and has seen two huge displays from the partnership of Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone. Palacios had previously been a key ingredient in the make up of the side, with Spurs looking a paler team without him. The question for Redknapp to solve is how do you change a winning side? If the answer with a player as imperious as King is easy, with Palacios it is less clear cut. The United midfield is a cross between the styles of Arsenal and Chelsea. Whilst not quite as fluid as Arsene Wenger’s attractive but lightweight core, they look more composed on the ball than Carlo Ancelotti’s sturdier setup. For two players who are perennially more comfortable in possession than at winning it back, Modric and Huddlestone coped extremely well with both contrasting midfields. It would seem harsh after their showing against Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel to call for Palacios to be brought in to stiffen up the midfield, but he might be the best candidate in the Spurs squad to cope with the persistence of Darren Fletcher, a player who, for all his squad rotation, Sir Alex Ferguson rarely leaves out of big games.
It has been a quirk of the fixture list that teams who a week ago were doing each other huge favours now meet looking to dent each other’s hopes of achieving their respective goals. United beat City to boost Tottenham’s Champions League qualification hopes and hours later Spurs returned the favour with their win over Chelsea to put United back in the title race. Now at least one of the pair will be denied victory, with the winner giving an ironic helping hand to their fierce rivals in the process. A United win gives City the advantage back over the Lilywhites, whilst a Spurs win gives Chelsea breathing space against the Red Devils. A draw suits neither team so expect both sides to go all out for victory, and an open game might just suit Tottenham with Gareth Bale in such devastating form on the front foot.
Visits to Old Trafford have not been kind to Spurs for many years now but if Redknapp can get his men to treat it as a one-off occasion then they can spring a surprise like they did in the previous two games. With the knowledge they still have to play City, they can even afford the luxury of knowing defeat to United does not mean the end of the chance of fourth place. Leaving so much riding on the head-to-head with the Citizens is a risky strategy, but having less pressure on their game against the Red Devils means they can relax in their bid to seal this weekend’s three points.
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