If Leicester City is going to put the finishing touches on the most improbable championship run in the history of modern-day professional sports, they'll have to outlast a more-than-worthy adversary.
A year after finishing fifth in the English Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur have put together a brilliant 2016 campaign that has seen them go 19-4-11, taking 68 points from 34 matches to put them within striking distance of Leicester and what would be a historic first EPL title of their own.
They play aesthetically beautiful soccer and have improved leaps and bounds defensively compared to last year, when they gave up 53 goals. They also boast one of the league's most talented and fun-to-watch strikers in Harry Kane and an insane +39 goal differential. If this were any other season - literally ANY other season in the EPL - 2016 would in all likelihood be the year of Tottenham.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the ever-predictable nature of the EPL more than Tottenham being a particularly compelling underdog story. Only five teams have ever won the Premier League in its current iteration. And if you take away the year that the Blackburn Rovers won it 1994-95 (after spending record cash on superstar forward Alan Shearer, mind you) that number drops to just four: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal - quite possibly the four least heartwarming underdog franchises that I've ever typed in succession. Anyone other than those four winning would be a big story, no matter who it is. Leicester just happens to be an underdog story of historically epic proportions in a way that Tottenham just isn't.
This is why I'm not entirely sure that I fully agree with the narrative that Tottenham represents this juggernaut spoiler to Leicester's fairytale. As I said earlier, in any other season where Leicester wasn't a factor, I think the argument could be made that Tottenham is a decent feel-good story in their own right - a team that finally put it together and won it all after years of being a contender that couldn't quite get over the hump and managed to play the role of giant-slayer in the process. If this were Manchester United nipping at the Foxes' heels with four games to go, we'd be having a completely different conversation.
The cool thing is that the real juicy part of this race is just getting started. Leicester is five points clear of Tottenham with just four matches to go - a margin that makes the Foxes the odds-on favorite but also leaves Tottenham with a more-than-viable window to chase them down and snatch the title for their own.
Both teams come into this week's games riding a strong run of form. Leicester's only league loss since Christmas was a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal on Valentine's Day and they've rattled off a 6-0-2 record since then. Tottenham, meanwhile, is 4-0-1 over their last five and have lost just once in their last 12 league games. They're also coming off a 4-0 shellacking of Stoke City on Monday that arguably could have been even more lopsided than that and was one of the most impressive away results of the year. Before that, their most recent results were as follows:
- A convincing 3-0 drubbing of Man U on April 10
- A hard-fought 1-1 draw with Liverpool in Anfield on April 2
- Another 3-0 romp over Bournemouth on March 20
- A 2-0 win over lowly Aston Villa on March 13
This weekend will present Tottenham with as good a chance as any to cover some more ground. As we all know, Jamie Vardy - Leicester's star striker and the EPL's second-leading goal-scorer to Kane - will miss the Foxes' upcoming match with Swansea City after receiving a red card last weekend against West Ham. Vardy has also been charged with improper conduct for swearing at the referee, meaning he could stand to miss even more time than that.
This, of course, immediately becomes the prevailing storyline surrounding the Foxes in the coming weeks. Without the services of their best player, where do the goals come from?
The consensus seems to be that Argentinean Leonardo Ulloa will be the one tasked with filling the void in Vardy's absence. On the surface, this doesn't seem like the worst option. The Foxes have won four of the five matches Ulloa has started this season and the 29-year-old has a respectable (if not especially remarkable) 15 goals in 63 appearances since his 2014 acquisition. He also scored the game-tying penalty kick against West Ham after Vardy's ejection, salvaging the 2-2 draw.
But Vardy is one of the more irreplaceable players in the league. Yes, he's been one of the EPL's most statistically productive players this season. But he's done so making use of an extremely unique skillset that Ulloa would be hard-pressed to duplicate. It's not a knock on Ulloa to point that out, but rather a testament to how well Vardy has played this year and just how integral he's become in allowing the Foxes' system to function properly.
That said, if the Foxes could pick a match during the season to have to survive without Vardy, this isn't the worst candidate. Swansea is just 10-14-10 on the season, good for 14th place on the table. They've also struggled to attack effectively throughout the year, notching just 34 goals - good for 17th in the EPL.
But Tottenham doesn't exactly have a clash with a titan either. They play 15th-place West Brom on Monday, the worst attacking team in the league this year aside from Aston Villa. Obviously nothing is impossible, but it's hard for me to see a situation where Tottenham doesn't come out of that fixture with all three points considering the form they're in at the moment.
This makes Sunday's game with Swansea all the more crucial for the Foxes. Should they find a way to steal a victory without Vardy and maintain their five-point cushion over Tottenham, it would go a long way in paving their path to immortality. If they drop it - and Spurs take care of business like it seems they will - Leicester's lead will be cut to two points and turn the race into a virtual toss-up with three matches to go. All things considered, though, does it get any better than this? I don't think it does.
The days of reckoning are upon us. Let's do it.