“Maybe we don’t go there as top of the league,” replied Jose Mourinho, when asked about the prospect of not just returning to Chelsea, the site of his three Premier League wins, but doing so in pole position. “Maybe Liverpool gets top off a victory at Brighton."
The defending champions, level on 20 points with Tottenham Hotspur but second due to an inferior goal difference, can leapfrog them with the early kick-off on Saturday. Mourinho, right now, could not care less. “Going there top of the league or not doesn’t change anything for us.”
Should Brighton beat Liverpool, Spurs will mark seven full days at the top of the Premier League, more than the six they have spent in that position in the previous 10 seasons combined. Mourinho is correct: top spot will be no trump card in this battle of wits against Frank Lampard, who has had the better of him in their previous two league meetings. But it is a tag, superficial or not in November, that represents a new dawn for the club.
“Uncharted territory” does not quite do it justice. In fact, it feels a bit like Spurs are into the second hour of a horror flick. That first brush with a masked murderer was negotiated last week, with almost discerning ease. More seasoned slasher aficionados will know this is when it gets toughest: as relief breeds complacency ahead of a run that has them facing three of the top four in their next five games, along with north London rivals Arsenal. Beyond that is the energy-sapping slog of 29 more fixtures in the league alone. Whatever happens, they’ll be bloody by the end.
There is optimism around the club. Though some of it might be cautious - Spurs fans will be the first to remind you that they are, of course, Spurs - much of it comes from how structurally sound they have been since the late three-goal capitulation against West Ham. They conceded just one in their next four league games, and it is this reliability at the back that holds them in good stead for the challenge posed by a Chelsea set-up boasting the country’s most exciting and functional attack.
Of course, Harry Kane, Son Heung-min et al don’t need to stop and ask for directions on the way to goal, just one shy of their opponents’ season tally of 22, and Kane’s emergence as the deepest dropping frontman since Kurt Cobain gives them a unique dimension. But success so far, especially the blitzes from out wide and through the centre, have come through pragmatism. That was evident in a 4-0 performance from a second-string side against Ludogorets in the Europa League on Thursday night, and more so in Dele Alli, as grievances were parked on both sides for an efficient performance in his first appearance in a month.
And sorry, this is another bit about Mourinho, sensibility and tempering expectation. But for a group of players who know enough about playing well but little of success, he really is the perfect guide. The arch pragmatist with a nose for even the slightest whiff of danger. One familiar with the blueprints to the haunted houses that await, their trap doors and secret passageways, because he’s constructed enough of his own.
Yes, we have worn thin of the histrionics of both those final seasons at Chelsea, the majority of his stint at Manchester United and the first season in his current job, we recognise his current guise as one to be wary of. The contentment. The quiet satisfaction, almost sombre in victory. Of enjoying the peace in the football world because he knows he is about to break it. Just not right now.
Back in February, prior to his second defeat to Lampard, he boasted about the insider information he had received on Chelsea’s formation. "I was told they were back to a back five which is what they normally do when their results are not the best.” Spurs would go on to lose 2-1, but Mourinho’s source had come good. If there was one at all.
On Thursday evening, however, he was unwilling to engage with a half-volley thrown down by a reporter who wondered if similar information may be forthcoming. Albeit, it was a leave played while offering plenty of shots.
“Not yet. Or probably not. I don’t know,” Mourinho said. “But with such an amazing squad, to play James or Azpilicuetta. To play Chilwell, Alonso or Emerson. To play Mendy or to play the most expensive goalkeeper of the history of the Premier League, Chelsea has an amazing squad. So I’m not even worried about who is going to play.”
The inkling is Spurs will continue to do as they have done so well so far, on Sunday and beyond. Be neither restrictive nor reckless. Merely exist in the routine satisfaction of each day and each fixture, with a squad full of options that allows them to plan ahead by addressing the present.
Those who know what it takes to win the Premier League will not bore of telling you it’s not won in November, nor in the week before Christmas, by which time Spurs will have played Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Leicester.
Mourinho knows that better than most. His team seem to be aware of that, too.
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