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Heart Of Football

Costa's slump amid Blues' decline makes Spurs favourites

Given that the last game between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane produced an abundant New Year's Day thriller of eight goals, there is good logic in the Premier League and BT Sport opting for an early Sunday kick-off today.

Why wouldn't they? The English Premier League feeds a global audience these days, and the noon kick-off in London makes for more comfortable evening viewing where you might pay up and tune in.

Can lightning strike twice? Can Spurs pull off another cracker like the 5-3 home win they enjoyed over the champions-elect, Chelsea, almost 11 months ago.

A Tottenham win would not be all that surprising. The Lilywhites stand fifth in the table this weekend, within striking distance of the top. And they are unbeaten since the opening day of the season.

This season's three major purchases are Alli from Milton Keynes, Son Heung Min from Bayer Leverkusen and the big central defender Toby Alderweirald from Atletico Madrid. Their combined cost just about covers what Chelsea paid for Costa.

Chelsea, despite two wins in a row counting the Maccabi Tel Aviv romp, are 10 places and 10 points behind Tottenham, and have accumulated seven defeats in the league so far.

Put another way, Harry Kane has struck seven goals in his last four league games; Costa has picked more fights than scored goals over this season, or the second half of last.

  • GOING THE DISTANCE IN EUROPE

  • Tottenham Hotspur might have to overcome a Thursday-Sunday turnaround this week, but Chelsea are the more travel-weary team this season.

    TOTTENHAM

    MONACO

    2,830km

    ANDERLECHT

    730km

    QARABAG

    9,308km

    TOTAL

    12,868km

  • CHELSEA

    PORTO

    4,058km

    KIEV

    4,828km

    TEL-AVIV

    10,267km

    TOTAL

    19,153km

"He's not reading the game," says Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, explaining why he publicly shouted out to his striker from the touch-line during the game in Tel Aviv last Tuesday night. "From a distance, I told him I wasn't happy with his movement.

"He told me also a few nice words."

Nothing happened in the dressing room bar a kiss and a cuddle between a manager and a player from whom he needs more movement, and definitely more end product.

Mourinho, however, chose to revisit the spat on Friday.

"You're not on fire again because you've scored a goal against Norwich," the Portuguese said on TV. "It's a process, as a striker, you must play when you have the ball - and when others have the ball you have to anticipate things and read the game faster."

Costa might think (but not, yet, say in front of a microphone) that it would help if Chelsea played anything like the champions they were last season, or with anything like the intensity of a real Mourinho side.

Diego Costa is, he admits, a player from the backstreets. Chelsea paid the buyout clause, equivalent to S$68 million, to extract him from Atletico Madrid when half of Europe wanted this Brazilian turned Spaniard two seasons ago.

Moreover, Chelsea signed Costa for nearly S$80 million over five years in salary.

That is huge money, but you could see why when, two years ago, Costa bristled with power and anticipation. Under Diego Simeone's management in Madrid, he was a beast of a centre forward, able to bully or finesse his way to goals match upon match.

He was always mean and nasty, but the balance between scoring and aggression was acceptable. Just.

Mourinho coveted him, and through the agent Jorge Mendes that both share, he got what he wanted.

But is Mourinho getting out of the striker what Simeone did at Atleti?

Initially, he did, yes. But over the past 10 months Costa has netted just seven goals. His four this season came against West Bromwich Albion, Maccabi, Aston Villa and Norwich, and I'll leave you to judge the merit of those opponents.

This shouldn't be taken as an assault on one Chelsea player. It is almost impossible to finish off what the entire team seems to have forgotten how to create.

Spurs on the other hand are progressing nicely under Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian coach is the opposite to Mourinho or Costa in the sense that you seldom, if ever, hear or see him raise his voice or show belligerence towards anyone.

Pochettino is intense and demanding on players. Spurs work as hard as Southampton did under him, and they press high up the pitch to smother opponents' creativity at source.

Yet there has, this season, been licence for the likes of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen to step out of this communal work ethic to express themselves.

Alli, in his first year at Premiership level, has perhaps striven too hard to be both worker and creator. He is suspended from today's game after accruing five yellow cards.

Spurs will miss his zest, and the replacement Ryan Mason is more soldier than artist.

Pochettino's work at Tottenham is to make more out of considerably less. The breakthrough of Kane (always a Spur, but often loaned out to lower divisions) has come over the last two seasons.

His market value could hardly be less than Costa's. Tottenham are not exactly built on a shoestring, but we will never know how far in England, and in Europe, the team could have gone had they kept Gareth Bale and not squandered the £80 million (S$170 million at current rate) fee from Real Madrid.

This season's three major purchases are Alli from Milton Keynes, Son Heung Min from Bayer Leverkusen and the big central defender Toby Alderweirald from Atletico Madrid. Their combined cost just about covers what Chelsea paid for Costa.

Mourinho says that Spurs could win the title this season. Pochettino makes no such claim, and suggests Tottenham are hoping for a top-four place.

But having given the game this build -up, there is reason to believe that the EPL is not helping Tottenham to be at their best today.

The team, or most of it, was in Azerbaijan on Thursday night, winning a hard-fought Europa League match against Qarabag. Kane - who else? - dug out the winning goal.

After a six-hour flight, Tottenham landed back in London at 4am on Friday. And after just one training session yesterday, they take on the champions.

Chelsea also played in Europe, albeit two nights earlier and were handed an easier contest after Maccabi's veteran Tal Ben Haim - a former Chelsea defender - foolishly retaliated against Costa and was red carded before half time.

All this, insists Mourinho, does not give his players any kind of advantage over Spurs. If he is right, then Chelsea's decline is indeed mighty.

TOTTENHAM V CHELSEA
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Costa's slump amid Blues' decline makes Spurs favourites'. Print Edition | Subscribe