By Karl Matchett.
Tottenham Hotspur's excellent recent run of form in the Premier League has propelled them to second place and the biggest challengers to Leicester City to win the title this season.
It's not a battle for supremacy in England's top flight which would have been expected at the beginning of the campaign, but Spurs and the Foxes have proved to be the most consistent and resilient sides around.
Now, with increasing games on the London side's fixture list thanks to their Europa League exploits, manager Mauricio Pochettino needs to weigh up the benefits of keeping a successful side playing together regularly, against the burn-out and possible fatigue accumulation which could severely hamper the charge for silverware in the latter stages of the season.
Six league wins on the spin for Spurs-plus progression in Europe against Fiorentina-has extended their terrific run in 2016. Their only defeat in the league this calendar year was against the league leaders, and they have won nine of the last 11 using an extremely settled side, only rotating in two or three players to supplement the usual starters.
Now though, with a run of five key games in just 15 days coming up, the squad's depth, resolve and quality will be tested to its limit.
West Ham United is never an easy fixture for Spurs-they've won only four of the last nine league meetings between the two-while following that there is the north London derby against Arsenal to look forward to, as well as a Europa League double-header against German Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund. Simply put, the problem for Pochettino is that while Spurs' best XI might be able to compete against those sides, doing so every three days with the same personnel in place is an unrealistic expectation.
The demands placed on full-backs in particular means they have been rotated regularly; Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies have tended to feature in the cups, while Kyle Walker and Danny Rose take the positions on either side of the defence in league play, but the midfield sees a usual quintet chosen whenever possible, with two alterations according to fitness and availability. Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier hold centrally, with the attacking trio of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Heung-min Son in front. Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli are the two usual rotation options. Both they, and perhaps Ryan Mason, will play an important role over the coming weeks if Spurs are to maintain their lofty targets of success on two fronts.
Of course, the elephant in the room as far as Spurs' regular lineup is concerned is Harry Kane.
The striker plays whenever he is fit, but Pochettino is mindful of the lack of cover for his first-choice No. 9 and tends to sub Kane off in the latter stages of games with some regularity; since the turn of the year he has completed 90 minutes six times from a possible maximum of 14 games.
There is no natural replacement for Kane when he is left out of the starting lineup, with a succession of attacking midfielders utilised in his stead-Chadli, Son and Lamela have all been used as the furthest-forward player over the last couple of months, to varying degrees of success. It would have been common knowledge in the January transfer window that Spurs were hoping to add a striker to their squad and that would likely have pushed up prices; with that in mind, either Pochettino or chairman Daniel Levy clearly opted for prudence in winter with the aim of strengthening on a more reasonable budget in summer.
Too much rotation of the team now can upset the balance and confidence in the side, in a key part of the season. Too little, though, and the starters will run themselves into the ground, injured or ineffective when they are most needed-and the reserves will be out of rhythm and lacking in sharpness when called upon.
It's a delicate balancing act for the boss to play with, but the Argentine has managed it beautifully so far. If he guides his side through the next few weeks with perhaps a maximum of one defeat-ideally, from the fans' and the team's point of view, not against Arsenal-then Spurs will have every reason to believe they can still hunt down the Foxes and secure Premier League glory this season, with a European conquest still a possibility too.