Can Spurs finally cope without Harry Kane?
Background image: Hzh, CC BY-SA 4.0
Injuries were Harry Kane’s biggest enemy this season. After spending five weeks out of action when he damaged an ankle in January against Manchester United, another ankle injury against the other Manchester club means he will spend considerable time on the sidelines again. The previous knock kept him out for seven games. Tottenham felt his absence keenly. Only when Heung-min Son returned from the Asian games to score some crucial goals did the pain ease.
This time, however, the Korean is not on another continent. Instead, he's on the pitch. That other Manchester City club will quadruply regret any thoughts they could have their way against Spurs at the Etihad without Kane. Two Son strikes in the first 11 minutes gave the visitors control of the tie even though City had three by the 21-minute mark. VAR took over in the second half, first ruling that a corner kick into the box caromed in off Fernando Llorente's hip rather than his forearm, then catching Sergio Aguero offside at the death to stun a joyous City XI, manager, bench and crowd who thought for a moment they had progressed to the Champions League semifinal.
On a personal level, Kane will not add to his collection of Premier League Golden Boots. Even though Son stood in manfully in the second leg against Manchester City, there is no guarantee he will carry the team to the finish. Kane's goals helped the Three Lions to the World Cup semifinal and three Champions League campaigns in succession. His influence on the team has been so great that Pep Guardiola once referred to Tottenham as ‘the Harry Kane team’. it was not a compliment but the question remains: can the Kane team become Harry and Son?
Although Pep subsequently amended his statement, crediting Mauricio Pochettino for building a team that is now a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League, the fact still remains Tottenham is not quite the same without Kane. Son did prove himself in both legs against City [he also scored the lone goal in the first leg] but the North Londoners now face an Ajax side who ousted both Real Madrid and Juventus, the latter despite Cristiano Ronaldo scoring in both legs. Erik ten Hag's Lancers are young but gaining incredible experience and confidence.
And that's not the only concern.
The race for the top four is dissolving into a four-team lottery. The LilyWhites cling to third place by the slimmest margin. Arsenal are a point off their pace. So is Chelsea, although the Blues played an extra game to come so close. Manchester United are just three points adrift and won't have Champions League football to distract or tire them in the run-in. With four teams battling for just two slots, two must lose. In that scenario, any manager wants all hands on deck, especially the most dangerous.
Tottenham's last five league games are against City at the Etihad, Brighton and West Ham in their own new digs, Bournemouth at Dean Court and Everton in the as-yet unbranded stadium.
The first two contests are baited traps. The Sky Blues will seek immediate revenge for their shattered dream. The Seagulls have plummetted into a relegation battle with Cardiff and are desperate for points.
West Ham should be easier. The Hammers haven't much to play for during the run-in and their defence has been suspect all season. Tottenham can manage quite well without its talisman against their London rivals. Son, Dele Alli, Christian Erikson and Lucas Moura should prove too formidable.
You'd think the same could be said for Bournemouth but Eddie Howe's lot are much more dangerous defending their home ground. As well, you never know what you'll get from Marco Silva's Everton. It could be a walk in the park or a house of horrors.
Dropping any points at this stage could be catastrophic as far as Champions League qualification is concerned. If Spurs win out against Ajax, either Liverpool or Barcelona will be waiting. Poch's lads can't count on winning the competition as a route back next season.
One difference between Kane and Son is their defensive contribution. The Korean tracks back and pickpockets but isn't the best tackler. The England captain puts a leg in whenever the opportunity arises. Of course, it was one such tackle from which he emerged second best against Fabian Delph but the 25-year-old also provides leadership and assurance to his teammates.
There's no getting around the fact that Harry Kane's absence is a massive blow to Tottenham's aspirations for this campaign. In the end, Son may rise to the occasion, continuing to prove his worth. If the side falters, however, the blame will all be placed on the ill-fortune of Fabian Delph's follow-through.