The two best teams in the Premier League belong to London. Across the 2016/17 season, it’s Tottenham Hotspur who’ve clung most tenaciously to Chelsea’s footsteps. Mauricio Pochettino’s side had battled the Blues to a standstill across two league games, the most consistently good opponents we’ve faced this campaign. They’re second in the league, a handful of points in our wake and a real threat to ruin our summer. Even on paper, this match would have been a worthy FA Cup final.
It was, alas, only a semifinal. But that meant a trip to Wembley nonetheless, an opportunity for these two teams to settle their scores on the ghost of England’s most hallowed ground. And with honours even between those teams when they’d faced each other in the league, this felt like a referendum on which of them really deserved the title as England’s top club.
Which meant, of course, that someone was going to interfere with the scheduling. With Chelsea due to face Southampton on Tuesday and with no further room for error if they hope to secure a Premier League title, Antonio Conte opted to rest two of his key players and was forced to leave out a third due to illness. Spurs don’t play until Wednesday, but they too went for rest, dropping their wingbacks to the bench without changing formation. That decision would come back to haunt them.
In Pochettino’s defence, starting Hyung-Min Son and Kieran Tripper over Ben Davies and Kyle Walker didn’t seem any less crazy than Conte leaving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa out for Willian and Michy Batshuayi. But the strengths of the respective lineups and the bench meant that Spurs would have to get off to a flying start to avoid being ground down by the Blues later in the match. They did not.
Twice in the first three minutes, Chelsea broke with menace and pace. The first went awry thanks to a weak pass from Victor Moses, but the second -- sparked by a delicious tackle from Nathan Ake and given further impetus by a smart flick from Batshuayi was brought to a more satisfying conclusion. Pedro drew out Toby Alderweireld, skipped past his man, and was hacked down, presenting the Blues with a dangerous free kick on the left.
Marcos Alonso was our most recent free-kick hero, but his forte is shots from the opposite channel, and the wingback was quietly shooed away by David Luiz and Willian. It was Willian who ended up taking responsibility, bending an effort in at the far post while the unsighted Hugo Lloris guessed the wrong way. Spurs are difficult to score against, and going 1-0 up so early felt suitably momentous.
2-0 would have been even better, of course, and an opportunity to double the lead presented itself in the ninth minute, when a ridiculous pass from Jan Vertonghen allowed N’Golo Kante and Batshuayi what looked like a free run at goal. But the pair never quite worked out how to get there, and their wasted touches allowed Tottenham to clear. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea were punished for their profligacy.
The Blues had begun the match with a high-intensity press, but slowly dropped off and allowed Spurs to drift their way back into the match. Having nearly caught the defence out with a quick free kick to Harry Kane, Tottenham took advantage of the resultant corner to draw level. The delivery was only partially cleared, and Christian Eriksen drove the ball back towards the near post with venom. Kane, who’d wriggled his way off Ake, improvised magnificently, flicking the ball up and past Thibaut Courtois with the top of his head from an implausibly tight angle. Another Chelsea lead had been blown.
The next stage of the match is what Pochettino and Spurs supporters will describe as dominance. It’s true that they had most of the ball and that the Blues were by and large on the back foot. But it’s also true that they weren’t really able to do anything with the ball. The most damage done to Chelsea’s defence for the rest of the half came when Dele Alli stamped — it was probably an accident — onto David Luiz’s Achilles, which left the Brazilian in rather a lot of pain but with no long-term damage. How very metaphorical.
As is so often the way this season, sterile possession for the opponents turned into another lead for the Blues. Son, whose approach to his defensive duties seemed mostly to revolve around the hope that he’d never have to do them, was two steps late tracking Moses into the box, and tried to make up for it with the most ludicrously ill-conceived slide tackle of all time.
There are many things that must have gone through Son’s mind in the moments — perhaps full minutes — that elapsed between him hurling himself to the ground and Moses hurling himself over the tackle. What on earth he was hoping to achieve, for instance. The slow realisation that he had in fact done the opposite. The entirety of Les Miserables.
You could almost see the delight in Moses’ face. Presented with a tackle that told him from five yards away, ‘if you fall over this it will be a penalty’, Moses fell over it and was rewarded with a penalty. Yes, he initiated contact, embellished magnificently and could have avoided it entirely. But that tackle was so magnificently inept that few could claim that Moses taking advantage of the opportunity it offered was somehow beyond the pale.
With Hazard on the bench, Chelsea didn’t have a designated penalty taker. Willian’s hatred of Tottenham was therefore enough to qualify him for the spot kick. He restored the lead and brought himself up to a brace with a thumping finish, sending Lloris the wrong way to boot.
There was just enough time left in the half for Lloris to embark on a bizarre adventure, turning a slightly errant backpass into a clear handball outside the box, but Martin Atkinson missed what would have been at the very least a dangerous free kick for the Blues. Having also missed clear holding in the box from Mousa Dembele earlier as well as Alli’s stamp on Luiz, however, the dubious non-calls were not entirely a surprise.
With a 2-1 lead at halftime, the Blues would have been hoping to grind out the second and not let Tottenham back into the match. That plan lasted all of seven minutes.
You’d have thought that by now, Chelsea would have learned to defend against Eriksen. Before the second equaliser, Spurs had scored four times against the Blues this season, with Eriksen assisting three and scoring one from long range. He’s quite clearly Tottenham’s most talented and influential player, and to stand off him is to invite him to change the course of matches. Four times, that lesson had been taught. In the 52nd minute, Chelsea stood off him again.
Eriksen’s pass was perfectly timed and perfectly weighted, turning Luiz around and dropping — well, perfectly — onto a perfectly timed and absurdly ambitious run from Alli. There was still plenty to do on the half-volley, but Alli made a difficult finish look utterly trivial, blasting past a thoroughly vexed Courtois to haul Spurs back into the match.
A penalty shout followed immediately, when Alli went down under pressure from Ake, but with the way the match was being reffed it would have been odd to give Spurs the benefit of what would have been a reasonably but thoroughly borderline decision. And so we remained level.
Pochettino would surely have been happy to see his side twice claw their way back against a tough defensive unit, but it was Conte who had his big guns in reserve and ready to go against tiring opposition. By the hour mark, it was clear that the time had come to roll them out. Costa and Hazard were introduced for Batshuayi and the visibly (and justifiably) disappointed Willian. And, once those changes had baited Spurs into throwing Kyle Walker on and moving Kieran Trippier to left wingback, Cesc Fabregas made his appearance too.
Within a minute of that third change, the Blues were ahead again. Fabregas drove a corner — the first of the game for Chelsea — into the mixer, and it was cleared only as far as Hazard, lurking on the edge of the box. Tottenham’s defence was off-balance and rendered further discombobulated by a deft first touch; the second was a goal, hit sharply into the far corner with Lloris once again unsighted.
Spurs had been nothing if not resiliant, so the stage was set for a tense and exciting finish. But Nemanja Matic was apparently sick of that particular script, and in the 80th minute the big midfielder chipped in with his first goal of the season. It’s safe to say that when it came it was worth the wait.
It really was some strike. Here’s how Kurt Zouma reacted, for instance:
Hazard and Fabregas exchanged passes on the right, but with space limited and the players running into each other, a dangerous attack turned itself into a lay-off for Matic, 30 yards out. 99 times out of 100, Matic recycles that pass for Alonso on the left. This time he absolutely wellied it.
When I was a kid and learned that the Sun would, in several billion years, consume the Earth, I had an image of raging, unstoppable red heat slowly rending the planet into dust. That’s the picture that came to mind when Matic hit that football, which burned its way against the underside of the crossbar, then the ground, and then the roof of the net. Lloris didn’t have time to move, which was probably for the best. He’d only have gotten singed.
It was almost unfortunate that we had to play a further ten minutes after Matic’s goal. The fair thing for Atkinson to do would have been to pack everything in and call it a day. Instead, there was time for one further humiliation for Tottenham, who, in the final minute of stoppage time, saw a free kick from Kane squirm under Courtois, make it to the goal line and then change its mind and reverse course to safety. Calling that Spurs in a nutshell seems unfair, but it also feels very right.
So. One of Manchester City or Arsenal await in the FA Cup final next month, which we can put out of our minds for a while while we focus on bigger things. Beating Tottenham 4-2 isn’t a bad day’s work, but it needs to continue if we’re to avoid disappointment.