In teeming, swirling south London rain the bigger and more ambitious team took the game to their entrenched opponents and claimed a deserved draw.
But which was which? In truth, you could scarcely tell which of these two sides was challenging for the title and which steeling themselves for another season of survival. Tottenham took control of the game through Harry Kane and then inexplicably handed it back.
Jeffrey Schlupp’s late equaliser was no more than Crystal Palace deserved. The visitors looked good when they attacked. A pity, then, they didn’t try it more often. And we were reminded here that for all the progress made under by this squad under José Mourinho, they are yet to demonstrate they have the skill or even the will to consistently dominate games. Defensive rearguards are all very well when you are playing the very biggest clubs. But Crystal Palace away, with a 1-0 lead? Spurs fans are probably entitled to demand a little more in those circumstances.
Kane’s goal was a strange one. It came at the end of a taut opening quarter in which possession had skewed overwhelmingly towards Tottenham but chances were largely even. Hugo Lloris had been forced into a superb low save from Wilfried Zaha’s deflected shot. Kane and Tanguy Ndombele had each forced saves from Vicente Guaita that were appreciably harder than the one he would now botch.
Credit is due to Ndombele with the clever nudged pass in the build-up, to Son Heung-min for the quick layoff and decoy run, creating a path for Kane to try a speculative swerving shot from 30 yards. Even so, the ball was dead centre, and had Guaita been better set it would have been a routine stop. Then again, when you’re top of the league, these things tend to go for you.
And so the roles of the game swiftly reversed: now it was Palace keen to force the pace, Tottenham content to hold their shape and wait for their opportunity on the break. It is the sort of instinct for which Mourinho has often been criticised in his career: get a lead, protect it. And had Eberechi Eze’s curling shot from 20 yards found the bottom corner rather than the bottom of the post, Palace might easily have gone into the break level.
After all, Palace are a more multidimensional team these days: no longer as reliant on counter-attacks or the quick feet of Zaha. The arrival of Eze has given them more options, more combinations, more sophistication in the final third, and as Tottenham retreated into their shells Palace were slowly able to lever up the pressure. Between 35 and 65 minutes, Tottenham did not have a single shot on goal.
Meanwhile, the Premier League’s tightest defence was getting a thorough workout. Schlupp skewed a glorious chance over the goal from six yards. Christian Benteke put a header against the bar. As good as Tottenham have been at the back this season, perhaps they forced themselves to do a little too much defending, dug themselves in a little too willingly. There was too little craft on the ball, too many needless fouls 40 yards out.
It was from one of these that Eze was able to put a free-kick exactly where he wanted: curling towards the six-yard line, with a horde of bodies running across the eyeline of Lloris. Unsighted, the France captain could only paw the loose ball into the path of Schlupp, who smashed the ball home. And while it is tempting to fixate on Lloris, he was hardly helped by Tottenham’s approach, a siege defence in which the back four spent most of the last hour playing on his lap.
The game ended in a flurry of chances as Tottenham went chasing all three points again. Ben Davies came on for the disappointing Sergio Reguilón and hit the bar with a cross. Guaita redeemed himself with a brilliant fingertip save in injury time. And as Tottenham laid siege in the closing minutes, you wondered where all this enterprise and urgency had been in the previous hour. Come May, they may look back at this game as a painful missed opportunity.