John Brewin: Cardiff may kill off vague Tottenham title hopes

Tottenham’s Premier League title aspirations are hanging by a thread and Neil Warnock’s Cardiff could spring a surprise to finish them off…

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It was good while it lasted, but three short Christmas days was as long as Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League title challenge lasted.

On Boxing Day, as Manchester City slipped up at Leicester, and Spurs crushed Bournemouth, it was Mauricio Pochettino’s team who were best placed to stop Liverpool’s runaway train of heavy metal football.

Then came Wembley and Wolves and a slack second half that gave rise to a fifth defeat of the season; no team has ever won the Premier League when losing more than six matches.

With Hugo Lloris again looking flappable for both Willy Boly and Raul Jimenez’s goals, the wheels came off spectacularly. The damage was then compounded when Liverpool crushed Arsenal 5-1 that evening and then City won 3-1 at Southampton.

To win the title now from here, Spurs would probably have to win at both Anfield and the Etihad.

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Tottenham must now look over their shoulders at Chelsea, two points behind them, as opposed to the gaping nine points that Liverpool are ahead. While Arsenal and a resurgent Manchester United are five and ten points off the top four.

There might be a few at Spurs who hope United can reach the top four by the end of this season, as that would make Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prime candidate for the full-time role rather than being a manager on loan from Molde.

That, in turn, might keep Pochettino at Tottenham. It remains to be seen how many matches “Poch” will preside over at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or whatever its sponsored name might end up being.

That Wolves defeat brought to mind previous losses at key moments of the campaign, though far less further along the 38-game schedule.

In May 2016, Leicester were lost sight of after Chelsea came from two goals down to draw 2-2; the following year a Manuel Lanzini goal meant West Ham stopped their London rivals’ chase of Chelsea.

Though the Spurs press officers are making a forceful, valiant attempt to close down questions of Pochettino’s future, that Wolves defeat reminded that this is a club in limbo and it has only been the continuing ability of a limited squad to pull off results that has deflected from all the uncertainties.

The year of 2019 will be historic for the club whatever happens on the pitch, but there is the possibility of it beginning with an anti-climax.

Neil Warnock, wily old slayer of many a big reputation, lies in wait on New Year’s Day. Cardiff City are defying the odds by being out of the relegation zone with a squad on which little was spent in the summer.

While fellow promoted clubs Fulham spent £105m and Wolves used Jorge Mendes’ contacts book to lash out £59m, Cardiff spent just £29m, and of their four arrivals, only Josh Murphy had previously played in the Premier League.

Cardiff’s 1-0 win at Leicester, their first away victory of a campaign in which home form has kept them afloat, was achieved via three pieces of individual brilliance.

Victor Camarasa’s winning goal was a beauty, but it followed goalkeeper Neil Etheridge making a fine save from James Maddison’s penalty and then Sol Bamba making a heroic intervention to deny Maddison tapping in the rebound with goal gaping.

Each were moments of players raising their levels to come through for a manager known as one of the best motivators in the game.

Cardiff are not pretty to watch – they can be X-rated viewing at times – but they have peeled themselves away from the bottom three where most pre-season predictions had them languishing for the entire season.

Taking a point from Tottenham – or even a win – would complete what has been a satisfactory festive fixture list so far.

Whether that is possible may depend on their opponents’ mood; on December 22, a Manchester United team free of the shackles of being managed by Jose Mourinho took Cardiff apart to win 5-1.

And Warnock is well aware that his collection of cheap imports and lower league venturers might struggle to cope. “On a good day for Harry Kane it doesn’t matter what you do, he’ll cut you to shreds,” he said in looking ahead to his next assignment, as he also wrote off Spurs’ hope for the title.

“It’s such a strange thing, I think they would be challenging for the title in a normal situation but we’ve just got two incredible teams at the minute,” he said making an assessment of the title race that will tally with most people’s thinking.

Spurs’ hopes were always distant and it is actually a tribute to the excellence of Pochettino as a manager and the alchemy he has brought to bear on a squad of limited resources that Tottenham even entered the conversation.

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