A Blue Up North reviews the result that all Chelsea fans dread more than any other.
An Easter Sunday clash between bitter London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur had more on the line than just a mere 3 points. With The Blues lying in 5th place, 5 points behind their North London neighbours and an incredible record of over 28 years since the lilywhites had tasted victory away at Stamford Bridge, there was also the all important financial implications and the ultimate challenge of Champions League football up for grabs as well as the longest undefeated run in top flight English football.
The visitors were unbeaten in their last 12 league matches, including winning their last 4, while Chelsea had lost to Watford and both Manchester clubs recently in the league and been knocked out of this season’s Champions League at the hands of Barcelona. However, The Blues were still on a decent run of form at home in the league with only 1 defeat in their previous 11 league fixtures in SW6.
Antonio Conte was able to pick Andreas Christensen in the centre of his defence despite his early return from international duty, while Cesc Fabregas got the nod to team up with N’Golo Kante in central midfield over Tiemoue Bakayoko and Willy Caballero kept his place in goal with Thibaut Courtois still unavailable. However, Pedro had suffered a knock in training on Friday and was missing from the squad.
For the visitors, all the prematch talk was about Harry Kane and would he return after only 3 weeks of recovery. He was not risked to start but was selected on the substitutes bench. Otherwise keeper Hugo Lloris, Mousa Dembélé and Dele Alli all returned to their starting line up.
For most of the first half, Spurs enjoyed more of the possession but struggled to penetrate through a resolute Chelsea defence. Meanwhile it was the home side who regularly looked more goal threatening. Alvaro Morata looked lively and both wing backs were trying to press forward as often as they could.
Mauricio Pochettino had set his team up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation and once again targeted Chelsea’s right hand side of their defence which had brought his side some success in the past. However this required right back Kieran Trippier to constantly press up field in the hope of delivering regular quality diagonal crosses from deep to land between Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses. The target for these long passes would be the taller Dele Alli who had scored a brace at White Hart Lane last season against The Blues using this exact tactic.
However, this time it was the home side who benefited more from this plan. The remaining Spurs defenders all shuffled to the right which gave Victor Moses plenty of room to receive forward passes and attack young Ben Davies at left back. The Nigerian has struggled this season to get passed his marker or to put dangerous crosses in for his strikers to attack. For once though, he was enjoying the extra space allowed for him and it was his cross that was converted by Morata for the opening goal.
As the first half continued, the 3 Spurs defenders shuffled back into their regular positions and suddenly there was vast open spaces for Marcos Alonso to constantly sprint into. With Trippier still too far up the pitch, the newly capped Spaniard was a constant thorn on the visitor’s right. Unfortunately for The Blues though, and what has been a regular trait for them this season, they were unable to take full advantage of their attacking dominance.
As the first half drew to a close and while Mauricio Pochettino was counting his blessings that his half time team talk and tactical reshuffling was only going to be from 1 goal down, Christian Eriksen fired in a cannon of a shot that flew over the hapless Caballero and silenced the entire stadium with the power and accuracy of his equaliser.
Pochettino reverted his players back into their traditional positions for the second half after seeing how poorly his plan was back firing on him in the first half. Suddenly, with a flat back 4 there was far less space for Chelsea’s wing backs to drive forward into and the home side’s most regular route of moving forward dried up.
As the play became more central, the bigger and stronger visitor’s midfield started to take some control. Sadly for all in blue, Antonio Conte did not seem to have an answer to this and the platform was set for Dele Alli to come to the fore. A piece of pure brilliance and a scrambled effort in the 6 yard box from the young Englishman not only ended the 28 year undefeated long run for The Blues at home to their rivals, but surely also condemned the West Londoners to a season in Europe’s second tier cup competition.
Yes, there was still plenty of time left for a Chelsea fight back but this was a far more resolute Tottenham performance than in recent years. Unlike 2 seasons ago when they lost their heads and were lucky to finish with any players still on the pitch, their approach was more focused and mature. Yes, Jan Vertonghen was lucky to get away with a terrible tackle on Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen wasn’t punished for taking out Willy Caballero when late to a through ball in the first half (if Caballero had been that late on Eriksen we would have seen the keeper sent off and a penalty awarded), but generally Pochettino would have been delighted with his team’s mental resolve.
Coupled with poor finishing and a lack of determination at all costs to keep their unbeaten run going meant that Antonio Conte’s side finished the match with little more than a whimper. Despite the Italian’s resolve that his side will continue to fight for every point in the hope of still finishing in the top 4, in reality all that is really left to play for is more FA Cup success. And with a semi final against Southampton coming up in 3 weeks, all who follow The Blues will be expecting another trip to The Final in May, which ironically could well be against Mauricio Pochettino’s side. Football really is a funny old game. Sort of.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue