One of the best games so far this season ended in a 1-1 draw after Didier Drogba's last minute penalty was saved by Tottenham's Heurelio Gomes. White Hart Lane, so long Chelsea's home away from home, has recently turned into an unassailable redoubt when Blues meet Spurs, and with Tottenham strutting their stuff in the Champions League and Chelsea's form so dire, few Chelsea fans were expecting a positive performance, let alone result. A win would have taken the defending champions back to the top of the table, but a much-improved Spurs side away may have been our toughest fixture to date.
Chelsea were boosted by Frank Lampard's return to action, with the midfielder taking a spot on the bench after more than three months out. Didier Drogba was also left out - for tactical reasons, apparently - meaning that Nicolas Anelka was the man to lead the Chelsea lines, flanked by Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou. Tottenham did some juggling too, recalling England defender Michael Dawson to partner Sebastian Bassong at centre back.
The game started well, with Chelsea taking control of the ball without much in the way of urgency or penetration. Gareth Bale, always Tottenham's major threat, was being man marked by Paulo Ferreira and doubled up on by Ramires, which rather blunted his thrusts but exposed Chelsea to different dangers. With Ramires dispatched to the right, Michael Essien had his hands full trying to contain both Luka Modric and Wilson Palacios - he still had time to send a couple of long range efforts towards the Tottenham goal, but was obviously overworked as the lone attacking midfielder.
After a fairly even opening quarter of an hour, Spurs turned on the style thanks to Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko. Defoe was occupying the space left open by Ferreira as the right back stuck to Bale, and he wriggled free of both Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires to pass to Pavlyuchenko in the box. With Johns Obi Mikel and Terry ahead of him, it looked as though it would be a challenge to open up enough space for shoot, but both players moved the wrong way, the striker cut the ball back, and was left with an easy finish past a helpless Petr Cech. It was abysmal defending, to say the least.
The opening period had proceeded in rather stately fashion, now the game became frenetic. Salomon Kalou had several chances to level things with his head, but failed - at one point spectacularly - and Nicolas Anelka had a goal correctly ruled out for offsides. Spurs, for their part, were also busy, but they were having issues with their final ball. Cech was excellent, making all the right decisions to snuff out Tottenham's attacks whenever anything looked particularly dangerous. With Essien slowly taking playmaker Luka Modric out of the game, the home side were trying to slow things down without much success, but Chelsea were still unable to do much damage before halftime.
Part of this was due to Anelka. The striker is most useful when he was moving, but today he was neither running forward particularly well, nor was he moving back out of offside positions when he should have been. John Terry, who was a titan in defence, spent the last few minutes of the first half pointing out Chelsea's attacking shortcomings, pushing forward so far that he was, at times, playing as an auxiliary centre forward. It might have been interesting, but it certainly wasn't ideal.
Noting the problem, Carlo Ancelotti switched things up in the second half, removing John Obi Mikel and replacing him with Didier Drogba, shifting Chelsea's shape to 4-2-4. It had an immediate impact. Essien and Ramires were able to command the centre of the pitch with much greater authority, Anelka occupied Wilson Palacios, and both centre halves were busy trying to contain the physical threat of Drogba, who threw himself into the game with far more vigour than useful. With Tottenham's central players busy, Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou were open whenever they drifted inside, leading to Chelsea absolutely dominating the play and possession and the home side trying - and generally failing - to hit them on the break.
Two substitutions later, and Chelsea had their equaliser. Peter Crouch had come on for Jermaine Defoe and Daniel Sturridge was swapped for Kalou, but none of them had anything to do with the goal. It was pure route one stuff, with Drogba controlling a long Petr Cech punt (with his arm, perhaps), ambling past Michael Dawson, and lashing a shot at Gomes with such venom that it knocked the Brazilian keeper over and left the ball trickling into the net.
Chelsea had been on top of the game but now they owned it, with Spurs looking increasingly desperate to hold on. Frank Lampard was introduced to the delight of all in the 77th minute and instantly added some panache to Chelsea's attack - a clever flick opened things up in the area for Ashley Cole, but instead of shooting he was dispossed and ended Palacios's night with a nasty foul. In fact, the last ten minutes were pretty nasty in general - there were far too many fouls going on, mostly unpunished, and Chelsea were by and large the culprits.
Yet it was a foul committed on Ramires that came close to turning everything around. Inside the first minute of injury time, Drogba nodded down a cross, Ramires ran onto it, and Gomes clattered him. It was the clearest of penalties, and represented a huge opportunity for visitors to take three points back to Stamford Bridge. Drogba stepped up, but his penalty was too close to Gomes, who guessed right and pushed it away. In retaliation, the striker hacked down Alan Hutton, who'd been mangled in challenges by Essien and Ferreira all day. Tottenham's free kick came to nothing, and the game was over, both sides having played very well and good value to their point.
There was some question after the match as to whether Frank Lampard should have taken the penalty kick, since he's the designated spot-kick taker and he was on the field for the first time in forever. Ancelotti revealed after the match that Lampard didn't feel up to the task:
Lampard was not able to take it because he did not have a lot of confidence because he was out for a long time. So Drogba took it.
-Carlo Ancelotti. Source: ChelseaFC.com
Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, meanwhile was relieved it was Drogba rather than Lampard:
I could see the writing on the wall there but I was quite pleased he didn't take it. I thought Drogba would score but I thought Frank would certainly score.
-Harry Redknapp. Source: ChelseaFC.com
At the end of the day, though, Tottenham are an excellent team, and it would have been harsh on them had Chelsea walked out of White Hart Lane with a win. For my money, both teams were excellent - this is the first time in a couple of months that I've been proud of a Chelsea performance - and a draw was probably the right result. If the Blues had been playing like they were against Everton, Newcastle, or Marseille, they'd have been slaughtered. Instead, they fought like lions after going down away to a Champions League team.
Slump over, I'd hazard. Congrats, boys.