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Dele Alli was 10 years old, already lankier and leggier than all his team-mates, and it was the final of the Citizen Cup.

Alli's City Colts Scorpions were streets ahead in the league but they needed to see off arch rivals Water Eaton Blues to do the double.

The Blues knew all about Alli – they had faced him twice that season and they had arrived with a plan to stop him. But Scorpions manager Mark Walsh, an ex-army recruit, decided to spring an ambush. He left Alli on the bench.

Their strategy scuppered, the Blues panicked and by the time Alli came on as a substitute they had forgotten all about man-marking their opponents' star player. The Scorpions sneaked the final 4-3.

The tale's tactical gains may have swelled slightly in the 11 years since but the fact Alli was considered such a dangerous proposition, worthy of such detailed attention, points to a player already making his mark.

Tottenham Hotspur's Dele Alli


This, after all, was an under-10s coach deploying similar techniques to Antonio Conte leaving Eden Hazard out of Saturday's FA Cup semi-final.

As Alli and the Scorpions were hoisting their trophies, Tottenham Hotspur, derailed by dodgy Lasagne, were slipping up to West Ham and in so doing, surrendering another chance to finish a league season above Arsenal for the first time since 1995.

Their pursuit has become only more painful since but on Sunday, Spurs and Alli can finally bring it to an end, knowing victory will ensure they cannot be caught by the Gunners this term.

If they are to beat Arsenal, who are building something of a resurgence after successive wins over Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Leicester, Alli is likely to be key.

Alli is a goalscorer, creator, runner and tackler. His goals come from darts in behind, late dashes into the box and the odd curler from distance, drifting in from the left and bending the ball inside the far right-hand post.

At Milton Keynes Dons, they tell a story of how then-manager Karl Robinson took his father to watch Alli when the midfielder was 15 and challenged him to spot the player everyone was talking about. Within minutes Alli had lunged into a tackle, nutmegged three players and scored.

But perhaps Alli's most notable quality, particularly at this fledgling stage of his career, is his tendency to rise to the occasion.

Where others get lost when the tension mounts, Alli thrives under pressure, relishes the rough and tumble and finds his best when it really matters.

Against the top six teams, Alli has five goals already this season – the same as Alexis Sánchez (two), Harry Kane (two) and Mesut Özil (one) combined.

When Chelsea were looking for a record-equalling 14th consecutive Premier League win in January, Alli nodded home two headers to seal Tottenham a 2-0 win. A fortnight later, another header started Spurs' comeback in a 2-2 draw at Manchester City.

He scored at Wembley in Saturday's FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, 17 months after marking his England debut there with a thunderous strike from 30 yards against France. Even for MK Dons, his opening touch in the first team was a back-heeled pass.

Alli is that rare breed, a big-game player with a big-game temperament.

That is not to say he the finished article. Any scouts casting their eye for Europe's elite clubs are likely to have returned with at least a few boxes unticked.

Physically, he is still light, slightly gangly and undeveloped in his legs and upper-body, a throwback to the spindly Steven Gerrard, waiting to come on as a substitute for his Liverpool debut in 1998.

For a player with such an impressive scoring record, he is also an erratic finisher, guilty of spurning golden chances in the box when perhaps his body is still catching up with his quickness of thought.

Clubs Dele Alli is currently linked with


And, of course, there is that simmering temper, a by-product of his tenacity that, when pushed, can too easily spill over into a punch in the stomach, flick of the leg or two-footed lunge. There will certainly be more indiscretions for club, and country, before his career is out.

But Alli's trump card remains his unwavering self-belief.

It seems strange to recall now but back in October, Mauricio Pochettino was left defending his form after Tottenham were held to a dreary goalless draw at Bayer Leverkusen and Alli had flashed a header wide of the far post. It was his 10th attempt without scoring, at the time the most of any player in the Champions League.

Some coaches might have rested Alli, taken him out of the limelight, but Pochettino kept faith and by the start of January, Alli had responded with eight goals in seven games.

Even within matches, Alli has a knack of following periods of inconspicuousness with explosive moments of brilliance.

Just a few minutes before his stunning strike against France, Alli had been sent clear by Harry Kane only for the ball to skip over his foot and into touch.

Against Chelsea on Saturday, Alli was quiet until the 52nd minute, when he nipped between César Azpilicueta and David Luiz before cushioning Christian Eriksen's sumptuous pass into the net.

This is what Alli is in 2017, a midfielder turned forward and deliverer of match-winning moments.

He has the thrust of Gerrard but his staccato influence is more akin to Frank Lampard at Chelsea and, as Sir Alex Ferguson noted, his twinkling feet reminiscent of Paul Gascoigne in his pomp.

A Tottenham victory on Sunday will stretch their lead over Arsenal to an insurmountable 17 points. It is set to be the last ever north London derby at White Hart Lane, where defeat would all-but hand Chelsea the title.

The stakes are high, just as Alli likes them.


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