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Coutinho, Hazard's La Liga flirtations highlight Premier League's standing

Coutinho, Hazard's La Liga flirtations highlight Premier League's standing


It was another European night for Tottenham to savour on Tuesday, yet the 2-1 win at Borussia Dortmund was not the most important game of the week, or even the fortnight.

Had Spurs lost in Germany, they would still have been favourites to finish ahead of Real Madrid. Conversely, they are not where they would have hoped in the Premier League, lying 11 points off the top and only one ahead of seventh-placed Burnley.

The next three league matches against West Brom, Leicester and Watford always carried more weight, and no one should lose sight of that now amid the euphoria of another Champions League triumph.

Not for the first time, Spurs showed their ability on Tuesday to hurt sides who attack them. But now they must again prepare for a different test against a West Brom side that will probably set up to frustrate them at Wembley.

Albion have parted company with Tony Pulis and that makes it harder to know what to expect. But it seems likely that the priority for interim manager Gary Megson is improving West Brom's organisation and shoring up a defence that has conceded 18 goals in 12 top-flight matches -- four of them coming against Chelsea on Saturday.

Like Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace before them, Albion would surely take a point at Wembley -- and they will take heart from the fact that two of those teams succeeded.

The good news is Spurs have won three of their four league games following European outings, trashing Huddersfield and Liverpool before overcoming Palace too.

Their home league results have also been improving. After the early defeat by Chelsea and the draws against Burnley and Swansea, Mauricio Pochettino's side have beaten Bournemouth and Palace.

The bad news is that neither of those 1-0 victories were particularly convincing. The first half was frustrating and goalless in each case -- and although Spurs eventually got the breakthroughs, they were tense affairs, unlike at White Hart Lane last season when Swansea, Hull, West Brom, Stoke, Watford and Bournemouth were all swept aside with 3-0, 4-0 and 5-0 scorelines.

Playing at Wembley provides a different challenge, yet Pochettino must find a way to make these home games easier and develop more margin for error.

His team selection against Dortmund could just provide the solution, combining the talents of his most creative and dangerous players.

Dele Alli has largely become a forward for Spurs and he scored his two goals against Madrid from that position. But he has also enjoyed productive outings in a central midfield trio.

The 21-year-old registered in successive games against Liverpool and West Ham from that role last month, with Heung-Min Son ahead of him in the second striker's spot.

Son also netted against Liverpool and, when Pochettino opted for the same setup against Dortmund this week, Alli set up both goals while Son struck the winner.

There is often an assumption that either Alli or Son will be selected in the front two -- Son was a substitute against Real Madrid and Arsenal -- but there is an increasingly strong case for playing them together.

Moussa Sissoko has often started on the outside of the central midfield three. But while he offers a physical presence and can carry the ball upfield, he lacks a consistent end product.

He seems better suited to making an impact as a substitute against tiring bodies and legs, attacking space on the break rather than trying to unpick deep-set defences.

Selecting Alli in that position instead, with Christian Eriksen on the other side of Harry Winks, can give Spurs extra invention and an additional goal threat.

Perhaps that risks upsetting the balance of the team, removing muscle and protection for the defence, but Alli is no shrinking violet. Neither is Winks.

A front five of Winks, Eriksen, Alli, Son and Kane -- plus attacking wing-backs -- would certainly give defensive visitors something to think about.

Pochettino has perhaps been heading in this direction anyway. Son has started all four games against Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Palace, but there has always been a piece missing from the jigsaw, or an enforced tactical change.

Winks only played for a couple of minutes in total against Burnley and Swansea. In the first of those matches, Pochettino used a back four with Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele as the central midfielders. In the second, Son started as the left wing-back before Trippier ended up on that side, while Sissoko also had a spell as a wing-back.

When Spurs hosted Bournemouth, Jan Vertonghen played at left-back in a four-man defence, and the hosts lacked width. When it came to Palace, Alli was missing and both Winks and Kane picked up early debilitating knocks.

Perhaps Pochettino has always planned to field this front five of Winks, Eriksen, Alli, Son and Kane in these home games, only to be denied by circumstances.

But Saturday could be the day, and the hope will be that Tottenham can enjoy a more comfortable victory this time.

Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.

The numbers on their shirts indicate their significance. Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard clash on Saturday as the creators in chief, the men charged with bringing style to a fixture that has often contained snarl. When Liverpool host Chelsea, the two No. 10s could command the attention.

It would not be the first time. Go back to the 2015-16 season, and Hazard scored a brilliant solo goal at Anfield. Coutinho struck twice at Stamford Bridge to deliver Liverpool's first major win under Jurgen Klopp. Rewind to Saturday, and each indicated that he is in the form to decide a potentially season-defining game. Coutinho scored one goal and made another in Liverpool's 3-0 win over Southampton. Hazard struck twice after playing a pivotal part in Alvaro Morata's opener in Chelsea's 4-0 demolition of West Bromwich Albion.

The surprise might be not that they star but that they are still there. For all the focus on the Premier League's supposedly superstar strikers and despite the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, they might be the division's two Galacticos in waiting. Hazard has been linked with Real Madrid for years. Coutinho wanted to join Barcelona in the summer. The Catalan club offered £136 million, enough to make him the second-most expensive footballer ever and insisted Liverpool demanded £177m, a claim the Merseysiders rejected.

Nevertheless, it is very possible that this is his valedictory season in England. It might be Hazard's, too: Earlier this month, he said it would be "a dream" to play for Zinedine Zidane. But he and Real have been dancing around each other for years. Still no move has materialised.

That might render Hazard unlucky. When Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez were the Premier League's outstanding individual, each got a transfer to either Madrid or Barca. Hazard has been its best attacking player for two of the past three seasons, albeit separated by a precipitous drop in form that might have been off-putting to suitors.

The fact that he has stayed put might reflect the division's relative decline in an era in which Spanish sides have dominated in Europe. Being the best in England was no longer enough. At times in the past few years, the most compelling attackers outside the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu have belonged to Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich or Juventus, not the English clubs. Time could be running out. Hazard will be 27 in January. He might be destined to be a Benelux Sergio Aguero, forever tipped to join Real but never actually doing it.

He has existed in a strange sort of limbo, forever applying for a job that is already filled. The reality is that there are few such openings: There are only six first-choice forwards at Spain's two superclubs. Lionel Messi has claimed one position for more than a decade, Ronaldo another for eight years. Suarez and Bale have tended to occupy two others, though Isco might be displacing the Welshman. Karim Benzema, displaying a staying power that has enabled him to defy predictions by doggedly holding on to a spot, is both Galactico and anti-Galactico. Until Neymar dramatically abdicated to inject urgency into Barcelona's pursuit of Coutinho, there were no situations vacant.

Much of the traffic has been from Spain to England, not vice versa. The Premier League been an escape for those -- Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Morata, Pedro -- no longer or never deemed a first choice or those who were sacrificed to fund more glamorous additions. Coutinho could both buck a trend and renew a tradition.

His habit of delivering a disproportionate number of his goals in big games might add to his appeal to Barcelona, suggesting that he has the character as well as the quality to flourish at the Camp Nou. Still more significantly, he offers something Hazard does not: Although he would command a Galactico's price tag, he would actually slot into the supporting cast.

When Chelsea and Liverpool met at the start of last season, their No. 10s occupied similar roles, each on the left of a front trio in a 4-3-3. Their paths have diverged since then. Hazard moved infield, first as one of two No. 10s in Antonio Conte's 3-4-2-1 formation and then as the lone, roaming flair player in a 3-5-1-1. Coutinho has dropped deeper: Liverpool should still play 4-3-3 on Saturday, but he is likely to be on the left of the central three, with Sadio Mane immediately ahead of him.

Klopp's reshuffle was designed to accommodate Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino as well as Coutinho and Mane. He is also giving a glimpse of the potential Barcelona Coutinho. With Ousmane Dembele installed as the new Neymar, he seems earmarked as Andres Iniesta's long-term replacement in midfield.

If Iniesta is irreplaceable, Coutinho is at least a stylistic fit. It means the midfield battle in Clasicos could be contested by men sometimes wrongly described as too lightweight for the hurly-burly of Premier League battles. Like Luka Modric, Coutinho is a technical talent in a position where the English have tended to expect more overt physicality. Slight figures have confounded doubters. But without taking anything away from their achievements, they could illustrate that it might be slightly easier to secure a move to Real or Barcelona as a midfielder. As Hazard can testify, competition to become their forward signings is so fierce that even the finest can go unsigned.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.