SPURS STILL A BRIDGE TOO FAR
ight now, no team surpasses Antonio Conte and this Chelsea side. They can win with a swagger, as they did against Manchester United and Everton; they can tough it out on inhospitable away trips, as they did at Middlesbrough; and they can come from behind, redressing the balance of play when asked serious questions, as they did on Saturday.
Where they floundered a year ago, now they blossom; where egos were crushed in the past, now they flourish. Pedro wilted last season amidst the heat of dysfunctional Chelsea, seemingly unable to bloom out of Catalan soil; Victor Moses was in exile, condemned to another loan spell, unwanted by the previous manager.
Yet both goal-scorers were excellent, reborn by the warm embrace of Conte’s love and nurture.
And Chelsea, right now, appear to have it all. In Diego Costa, who was outstanding in the second half, and David Luiz, they have a worldliness that secures victories, even after wholly indifferent first halves, which is what they produced on Saturday.
Luiz lingered on Saturday on the pitch, mixing with fans, receiving their embrace, giving back not just a shirt to a fan, but a repaired relationship between players and crowd. Not only is he defending well; he brings charisma and a character to a side that was beginning to look short of both.
It is seven successive wins since the 3-0 calamity at Arsenal and just one goal conceded since Conte’s back three was introduced.
“Now we are another team compared to Liverpool and Arsenal games, for sure,” said Conte. “If we were the same team we would lose the game for sure. Now we are another team. And I am pleased for the players. We have another type of confidence. We are working a lot and enjoy this type of football. On Saturday we won and I am pleased because it wasn’t easy. It was a big test for sure. Spurs is a really good team.
“They started better than us but I liked a lot our reaction. It wasn’t easy. After the first half we spoke. I always speak with my players and we found together the right solution to try to win the game.
“In the second half we exploited the situations we didn’t exploit in the first game.”
For Tottenham, twenty-nine fruitless visits to Stamford Bridge becomes thirty; 1990 remains the benchmark performance here for a Tottenham.
But it was hard to shake off the memory of meltdown Tottenham had when they lost both the league and their heads here last season. It felt that the hard lessons learnt that night were underscored on Saturday evening: that this Tottenham side remains a little short of know-how and quality.
Not far short; they have it in moments and in the first half they demonstrated that in the quality which exists in the side. But re-enforcements look necessary if they are to be the side that becomes a regular Champions League participant.
Mauricio Pochettino chose to dwell on the positives, of which there were plenty.
“There is no worry,” he said. “After that game, I feel proud; the effort was brilliant. We come from Monaco and it was tough to be out of the Champions League, but the answer of the players was clear. The right mentality, good performance, we were better. But we lost.”
Tottenham were undoubtedly better early on. Where there had been inertia in Monaco, there was energy unbounded here, with Victor Wanyama muscling his way to domination in the midfield, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli making darting, creative runs, Harry Kane a constant nuisance and Kyle Walker indefatigable. They confirmed their momentum in the 11th minute, when Eriksen picked the ball out 20 yards out from a Dele Alli pass. It seemed harmless but Eriksen saw a gap which Chelsea hadn’t covered. He unleashed a ferocious strike, off the edge of his boot, spinning away from Thibaut Courtois, to open the scoring.
Chelsea couldn’t wrest back control of the game. /Still, when their equaliser came, it was exceptional; wholly against the run of play, but a joy to watch nonetheless.
Pochettino will be agitated at the amount of space Pedro was afforded, but the control, little drag back, turn and exquisite strike, curling into the top corner from 20 yards out, was outstanding.
Pochettino would have been even more concerned about Chelsea taking the lead early in the second half. With Tottenham losing the ball cheaply in midfield, Chelsea swept up-field with Costa charging down the left and cutting the ball back to Moses.
In their dash to defend, Spurs ignored the spacious gaps on the opposite flank, so Moses had time and space to make his strike and though Lloris got a foot to it, he could only deflect into Jan Vertonghen, who in turn could only help the ball over the line on 54 minutes.
The roar which greeted victory was an indication of a certain degree of relief. But, for now Chelsea remain their master.
Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen celebrates scoring their first goal with team mates.