Billed as the clash between master and apprentice, this game transcended the hype. In place of Mourinho’s knockabout pantomime villain schtick, we saw raw, compelling drama, a riveting spectacle in technicolour, 3D and surroundsound.
This is what top class football looks like and Spurs were worthy contenders with every right to be there. There wasn’t a moment’s respite to be had as fortunes ebbed and flowed. It was tight and tense with a series of confrontations in every area of the field, the outcome of any one of which could decide the final result. At the finish, the relief that infused the pleasure indicated what more has to be accomplished to keep us up there as the season unfolds.
Over the course of 90 minutes, we ran through the entire gamut of emotions. At kick-off it was hope and expectation. The media framed this as a battle between the managers but that fades to grey compared with the genuine edge surrounding this fixture. While early afternoon start-times never feel right, come the whistle the aggravation, the desperation to win against a side where we have a poor record, generated a powerful roar that drove on the early frantic exchanges. Make no mistake – the significance of this match went way beyond league position or London bragging rights. This was the real test of our credentials as a rising force and of the new Tottenham team.
At Spurs, we know what follows expectation – disappointment. But these days there’s something different in the air. We had the better of a cagey first half hour. For much of the time the two formations matched up precisely, basically a 4-2-3-1, with Spurs making more of our possession. Dembele was busy, Eriksen the focal point and Townsend confident enough to take the attack to Chelsea down their left.
Then the goal, a carbon-copy of the move that created the opener against Norwich. The same players, Soldado a touch to Eriksen who then slid the ball through to the onrushing Sigurdsson coming into the box on the diagonal, covering the same blades of grass. Instead of the far corner, Siggy drove on after a half-tackle to stroke it home at the near post. Part improvisation, part training ground and in the stands, pure joy.
This was our best spell. Townsend became more prominent, his runs troubling Chelsea’s left hand side. His time at QPR has given him a confidence and determination to take the opportunity of first team football presented to him this season. He’s stronger and while Cole was unimpressed by his exaggerated stepovers, he’s overcome his main problem, a lack of awareness of what’s around him and is now a better judge of when to hold it and when to pass. He helped set up the move that enabled Paulinho to shoot inches wide at the near post.
In these narrow margins games are won and lost. Our justified optimism was tempered by niggling doubts. As that ball slipped by the post, we knew chances would be few and far between. Whatever the pressure, they needed to go in.
Sure enough, Chelsea came back into it towards the end of the half. They did not take the couple of chances that came their way and on one occasion Vertonghen tackled heroically to thwart another good opportunity.
At Loftus Road, Redknapp may have taught Townsend how to become a Premier League winger but he also left him with some bad habits. Wide men have to get back to cover but too often he was drifting in no man’s land. Mourinho targeted our wings as the weakness from the beginning. In the first half, it was long balls from defence. During one injury break, Luiz and Ramirez were animatedly discussing how to float curling passes into the gap down our left. Naughton and the diligent, hard-working Siggy put paid to that apart from one move.
Not so on the other side. A change in tactics with Ramirez moving to the middle and Mata coming on decisively shifted the balance of power. They pressed hard and were first to every loose ball. We began to be caught in possession. We looked up and no one was available as Chelsea flooded the midfield. Repeatedly exposed down the right and unable to get hold of the ball, Townsend came off to be replaced by Chadli as Villas-Boas desperately tried to catch up before the Blues ran away with the game.
Pleasure turned to pain as our opponents took over. There is nothing more anxiety-provoking than the fine margins of an offside trap. With Torres running the channels and a midfield apparently perfectly adapted to defeat the trap, this was a stomach-churning time. Demeble worked tirelessly but Eriksen disappeared, Soldado could not hold the ball and contributed little and Chadli despite his imposing build melted away shortly after he appeared.
Lloris was outstanding, several sprawling saves with body and feet at the onrushing forwards and fearlessly coming far from the comfort of his line to punch away the growing number of free-kicks curling into our box. Last week I noted that one of the factors behind our defensive security this season was that we were giving away fewer unnecessary free-kicks in our half. However, under pressure we gave away one too many, Terry equalising, too much room in the box.
These were anxious times. AVB kept adjusting – Holtby for the fading Eriksen – but Chelsea dominated, at least until Torres was sent off. I have not seen any replays of this game so I’ll leave it to the comments section to judge what did and did not happen. I saw him go for the man not the ball as he and Vertonghen challenged but didn’t see an elbow. Already booked, the ref gave a second yellow.
What I can be certain of is that this once fine footballer spent the entire match enveloped in a red mist of bitter frustration. Fine by me – he’s less effective that way – but if he spent half the energy expended in niggles, pettiness and feeling hard-done by on actually playing football, he could be great again.
His dismissal was the final shift in the game’s equilibrium. Full circle – the match ended in hope and expectation as Spurs came forward purposefully and with patience, shifting the ball from side to side to stretch the ten men. At one point Dawson, 30 yards from their goal, was our mst withdrawn outfield player. It nearly worked. Defoe was on for Soldado, a bold substitution from AVB to take the game to Chelsea despite the pressure we were under. He found space but missed the two chances that came his way. Fine margins again.
Going home – relief to be honest. A point in a game we could have lost. We competed well but were overwhelmed too easily at the start of the second half. Eriksen and Soldado contributed little. Eriksen seemed unsure about his positioning when Chelsea had the ball and was aimlessly too far forward. Wingers have to track back. Chadli appeared lost.
Siggy worked very hard all game. Naughton at left back did OK defensively but because he is not as comfortable on the ball as most of his team-mates, he gets caught in possession. Also, full-backs are important in our attacks, pushing up allowing our wide-men to come inside and get into the box, in turn vital if we have only one up front. Naughton is also right footed, so he comes inside too, denying us the options.
And what about the managers? A first-half match up with Our Andre getting more from his men than Jose the ugly sister but Mourinho ran the second period with Villas-Boas on the catch-up with considered substitutions to shift a balance that tipped finally only with the red card.