Beating the Real Madrid of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo at Wembley will rightly stand forever in Tottenham folklore but, when this 2017-28 season ends, it is quite conceivable that prevailing against the Crystal Palace of Roy Hodgson and Scott Dann will prove equally significant.
On a day when four of the top five were meeting each other and points were certain to be dropped, Tottenham had looked for over an hour here like they would waste a golden opportunity to reinforce their Premier League title challenge.
Hodgson seemed to have out-manoeuvred Mauricio Pochettino tactically and the game’s best chances were increasingly falling to his team. Tottenham looked fatigued, both physically and mentally, but after a week that has been hailed as a coming of age for this young team, they ultimately reinforced that impression for very different reasons.
After the electrifying midweek win, this was all about holding their nerve and simply finding a way to get past a Palace team who had showed enough defensive organisation and attacking threat to suggest that they could still reverse their increasing desperate position.
Victory against Real Madrid had certainly come at a physical cost for Tottenham. Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris had suffered respective hamstring and abductor injuries during the game but also absent against Palace were Michel Vorm, the unexpected replacement in goal, and also Dele Alli, who had scored twice against the European champions. That meant Paulo Gazzaniga making his debut and Son tasked with replacing Alli’s creative presence with Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen.
The atmosphere felt immediately subdued but was in keeping with the football. Tottenham might have been in command of the ball but the match’s pattern – almost a training ground exercise of attack against defence – was being most shaped by Palace. They had obviously been well prepared for that challenge and, for all Tottenham’s dominance of territory and possession, actually looked comfortable.
Hodgson’s team were also creating the game’s best chances on the counter-attack. An early cross by Wilfried Zaha caused huge uncertainty and, in rushing from the goal with his arms outstretched, Gazzaniga collided forcefully with Mamadou Sakho.
It was clumsy and potentially dangerous but referee Kevin Friend saw no infringement. Scott Dann then underlined Palace’s threat from set-pieces with a header that was well saved from close range by Gazzaniga. Tottenham’s attacks were laboured and unconvincing. Danny Rose headed wide and then Kane onto the roof of the goal. There was also a moment of hushed concern when Kane required several minutes of treatment to his knee after having his legs swept from under him by Timothy Fosu-Mensah. He slowly got to his fee but did continue.
Pochettino clearly wanted more forward penetration in his team’s passing and replaced Harry Winks with Mousa Dembele at half-time. The pattern was still favouring Palace. Yes, they were soaking up considerable pressure but were also still creating the better chances.
Andros Townsend pounced after Serge Aurier had lost possession and his direct run and shot forced a finger-tip save by Gazzaniga. Zaha then surged into space behind the Tottenham defence following a rapid counter-attack but, having guided the ball around Gazzaniga on the edge of the penalty area, just over-compensated with his attempted finish back across goal and shot narrowly wide.
Palace’s flurry did then seem to provoke a reaction from Tottenham and, with Sissoko especially effective with his direct running, their best period of the match was rewarded. A pin-ball situation had occurred in the Palace penalty box following a move involving Sissoko, Kane and Rose. Dann’s attempted clearance then only reached Heung-Min Son on the edge of the area and he had sufficient time to set himself and then curl a shot that had started well outside Speroni’s right-hand post back inside the goal.
The sudden need now to chase the game was clearly going to be problematic for Palace. They remain largely conservative in their approach, with Tottenham still far more comfortable in now being able to await for the gaps to emerge rather than take any risks themselves in trying to prise them open. They might still have finished even more comfortable winners, though, with Jan Vertonghen dissecting space in the Palace defence only for Son to shoot into the side of the goal when one-on-one with Speroni.