Tottenham let title hopes slip through their grasp in 1-0 defeat at West Ham
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from West Ham's 1-0 Premier League win over Tottenham at the London Stadium on Friday.
1. Spurs let title chance slip away at West Ham
This might well be it for Tottenham Hotspur. By the time they next play, a week on Sunday against Manchester United, Chelsea might already be champions. One cannot say that they have blown the title race, given that their previous run of nine wins in nine cut a lead of 10 points to four, but their 1-0 defeat to West Ham on Friday means Chelsea can confirm their title win should they beat Middlesbrough on Sunday then West Brom next Friday.
Manuel Lanzini scored the only goal of an exciting, if often scrappy, derby at the London Stadium, which was unusually atmospheric for the visit of Spurs. At the end, manager Slaven Bilic roared in celebration and perhaps relief, while the fans sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" with a gusto rarely heard this season.
For West Ham, these three points dispelled any remote possibility that they might be relegated. So tight is the bottom half of the table that this win takes them into ninth, on 42 points, 10 clear of the bottom three. The relief was palpable.
West Ham had the better of the opening stages, two early chances falling to Lanzini, with a left-footed shot, and Sam Byram, whose back-post header was turned behind for a corner. As the atmosphere both on the pitch and in the stands turned decidedly spicy, Tottenham edged their way back into the game, and nearly went ahead through a trio of chances in quick succession that were blocked and saved by a variety of West Ham defenders. Even by the standards of these rivals, it was a rapid start to the game.
A moment of controversy came after around 25 minutes, when Lanzini was wiped out by Hugo Lloris chasing a ball behind an unusually open Spurs defence; the goalkeeper got the ball first, so referee Anthony Taylor deemed it acceptable, but Hammers players as well as Bilic were incredulous. It might not have mattered if Cheikhou Kouyate had done better with the subsequent loose ball, but his lob was easily cleared.
Before the break the game was rapid and absorbing, but for the first 20 minutes after, it became scrappy in the extreme. Neither side could get any decent hold on things, until West Ham took the lead in the 64th minute. This had been an uncharacteristically poor defensive performance from Tottenham, which they capped with some calamitous work at the back: after a couple of botched clearances the ball fell to Lanzini, who forced home from inside the 6-yard box.
Vincent Janssen was thrown on as Spurs went all-out for an equaliser, seeing the title slipping out of sight again, but they were too disjointed to level the score. Until next season, then.
2. Dembele's importance underlined in his absence
For long spells of this game, there was a sense of mild chaos in most areas of the pitch. Nobody could seemingly control things; passes were going astray; and there were only a couple of moves that suggested any real quality.
There were no Spurs players who would consider this among their best days, but rather than singling out one starter in particular who was poor, it's more worth thinking about one who was absent. Mousa Dembele is a singular footballer, perhaps the ideal modern midfielder, one who can can leave you scratching your head at just how he emerges from most situations with the ball at his feet. A wiry, muscular physique combined with an extraordinary control make him one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, and this game displayed just how important he is to Spurs.
Dembele, still seemingly suffering the after-effects of a knock he collected against Crystal Palace 10 days ago, was only on the bench, and in the first half Spurs felt his absence keenly, with nobody quite able to make sense of the chaos surrounding the centre of the park, nobody quite able to control the game in the manner they needed.
As soon as West Ham took the lead, Dembele was called for, but really it was clear how much he was missed from much earlier than that. Perhaps Spurs would still have conceded with Dembele on the pitch, but this was a further illustration of his importance.
3. Win puts Bilic on firmer footing
In terms of the league, this was ultimately a relatively meaningless game for West Ham. They were still in slight danger of relegation, but realistically they could have lost every other game for the rest of this season and still stayed up: 39 points, their total before this game, will probably be sufficient for survival.
For their manager, though, it was a slightly different story. Reports have suggested that a difficult first season at the London Stadium might lead to his dismissal, a flirtation with the drop deemed unacceptable after they finished within sight of the Champions League places last season. With potential options like Marco Silva available, the club hierarchy will have been tempted to make a change.
This result, but perhaps more importantly this performance, might just have been enough to convince them that Bilic must stay. It doesn't wipe out the underwhelming nature of the rest of the campaign, but it might at least have shown that other factors -- the stadium, injuries, an abysmal couple of transfer windows -- might have had more to do with their campaign than the manager.
There was an effervescence to this showing that has been absent for much of the season, a spark up front (even though they're still in serious need at least one more striker, if not two or three) that had as much to do with the result as Tottenham being off form.
Bilic must also be credited with the switch in formation, to a rough 3-4-3 system, that has tightened up their defence nicely. That's three clean sheets in three games since the formation was brought in, for the recent game against Everton.
The West Ham board might still regard this season as unsatisfactory. But this showing has at least given them something to think about.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.