Momentum can be a powerful force in football and when the Champions League race enters its final week there can be no debate as to which team has it. Two wins in four days for Tottenham have put them fourth, dramatically increasing the pressure on an Arsenal side who look in real danger of collapsing on Monday night.
If Tottenham finish fourth then history will show that those are the defining moments of their season. First the thrashing of Arsenal on Thursday night and then this fight win over a group of Burnley players who struggled a lot for themselves.
It was a win also achieved in difficult circumstances, with Tottenham’s side struggling with illness earlier in the weekend. “Stomach problems, vomiting, fever,” said Antonio Conte, describing the problem that affected at least four players.
Burnley are far from the ideal team if you’re feeling a little touchy and Mike Jackson’s side made it an awkward afternoon for Spurs. Fear of relegation is a good motivator, providing the energy for that extra block or tackle, and Spurs needed a controversial penalty to break through Burnley’s spirited defence.
Visitors will rage on for some time to come at the decision, awarded for some sort of handball by Ashley Barnes and implemented with usual aplomb by Harry Kane. The Burnley striker’s arm was certainly outstretched but it was hardly an obvious error and there were no claims of a penalty from Tottenham’s attackers.
“I don’t know if the referee was playing football,” Jackson said of Kevin Friend, who was alerted to the incident by the video assistant referee in his ear. “Nobody has even filed a criminal complaint. You have to use some common sense.”
Burnley’s anger will only intensify if this defeat leads to relegation, although they still have two games left in which to ensure their survival. They could be proud of their performance regardless of the end result and in Nathan Collins they had the standout player of the game.
Arsenal would have been as annoyed by the penalty decision as Burnley. One win is now enough for Mikel Arteta’s side when they take on Newcastle United tonight.
Conte may not have enjoyed his team’s performance here, but he knew what it meant for him and his players.
“They tested our nerves,” said Conte, who will be watching closely as Arsenal take on Newcastle. “I’ll definitely watch. Because I love football and want to watch it, and I also want to suffer.”
Burnley had arrived expecting a charge and it promptly arrived with a comically one-sided start to the game. Lucas Moura, Kane, Son Heung-min, Ben Davies and Emerson Royal all had fierce shots on goal in that opening period, with Tottenham enjoying a remarkable 87 per cent possession in the opening 15 minutes.
Only the good work of Collins and Nick Pope prevented Spurs from taking the lead, but gradually Burnley began to relish the opportunity. And having laid a solid foundation in the game, the visitors were suddenly ready to play: Collins stepped out of defense and played a measured pass to Maxwel Cornet, which was denied by Hugo Lloris.
Then Barnes’ outstretched arm caught VAR’s attention after Davinson Sanchez flicked the ball in the air. There would only ever be one result after Friend was instructed to check the pitchside monitor and Kane converted from the spot as usual. “Two hundred percent penalty,” said Conte. “It is very difficult to understand their complaints.”
Burnley’s reaction was anger and they came out with renewed intensity in the second half when Kevin Long and Collins were both close. A few minutes later, Barnes smashed a long-range drive off the outside of the post. Tottenham predictably had chances to counterattack when Pope Son twice denied. But the longer they went without a second, the more nervous the afternoon got. When the whistle finally blew, Conte was almost on the pitch due to the exasperating energy of it all. Now that tension shifts to Arteta.