Thursday 21 September 2017

Paul Hayward: Derby defeat just a stumble on Blues' march to glory

Chelsea's Diego Costa. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Chelsea's Diego Costa. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Tottenham Hotspur's Christian Eriksen is challenged by Chelsea's Gary Cahill (right) during the Premier League match at White Hart Lane. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

Chelsea killed Tottenham's chance of winning the Premier League, so you can see why Spurs loved the thought of strangling Chelsea's record-setting attempt. What better way to end the seasonal goodwill pageant than a grudge match between clubs who loathe each other?

Lacking emotional control back in May, Spurs made up for that here with two almost identical acts of cold-hearted precision. Like two Prozone analysts spotting a weakness, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli twice combined with a cross to the far post and header by England's young midfield hope. Both times the flummoxed Chelsea defenders were Victor Moses and César Azpilicueta, with the bigger defenders, Gary Cahill and David Luiz, otherwise engaged.

Either somebody on the Tottenham coaching staff had done some pretty tidy homework or Alli and Eriksen are shrewd geometrists. Whichever: a Chelsea defence that has contributed almost as much as those buccaneering forwards in 13 straight wins looked vulnerable and disjointed for the first time in three months.

Joy-killing

On the joy-killing scale, stopping an enemy from setting a single season record of 14 consecutive top-flight wins cannot compare with causing one to implode three games from the end of a title race, which is what happened to Spurs at Stamford Bridge in May, in a throwback battle that handed the championship to Leicester City.

The images from that day remain vivid: 12 yellow cards and clashes straight from a Saturday night on the High Street. Yet there was something admirable about the challenge Chelsea had given themselves here. Stylish play, good management and the rebirth of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa made Chelsea's winning run worthy of envy and respect.

Not that Spurs had any time for it. In added first-half time, Alli rose to head an Eriksen cross past a Chelsea back three who have been excellent but were caught cold by Alli's jump.

Predictably, given Antonio Conte's passionate leadership, Chelsea came back out for the second half re-energised, and launched themselves at Hugo Lloris' goal, with Hazard skewing a good headed chance wide. But the Eriksen and Alli double act struck again to make it two in eight minutes.

On a good trot of their own, Spurs were intent on proving they have absorbed the lessons of last May, when Chelsea chipped away at the emotions of Mauricio Pochettino's young side until their software blew.

The resulting conflagration (Mousa Dembélé gouging Costa's eye, Eric Dier aiming cow kicks) had the feel of an inexperienced team falling into a trap set by a streetwise one. Fines of £600,000 for the two clubs reflected the high score on the mayhem chart.

So in this final festive fixture a developing team (Spurs) confronted one that seemed to have lost their way when they went down 3-0 at Arsenal on September 24: a nadir that prompted a tactical change (three at the back) and major remedial work on the spirit inside the squad by Conte, who is still performing best of the big-name managers who are new or newish to England.

Irritating him, though, was the knowledge that 13 straight wins had opened up only a modest five-point lead in the title race.

Chelsea's stomp through autumn and winter began with a 2-0 win at Hull on the first day of October. And they equalled Arsenal's single-season record of 13 wins with the 4-2 victory over Stoke on New Year's Eve. It was worth remembering that no top-flight team had made it to 14 win in a single season since the league started in 1888 - and only four had managed it in any of the divisions.

But to get to 14, Chelsea knew they faced a trial of body and spirit, because the rivalry with Spurs, traditionally hot, has turned volcanic.

Enforcer

They ran into opponents high on confidence: especially Alli. As ever, Victor Wanyama was Tottenham's enforcer, working his way along the line between yellow and red card offences and often escaping censure.

Plainly White Hart Lane was an unpromising venue at which to set a record, even if Chelsea benefited from a gentler Christmas schedule.

Spurs were assured from the start. They took heart from Chelsea's lack of fluency up front and of composure at the back. Even the toughest teams are susceptible to the extra pressure of having to make a new mark in history; and Chelsea, tougher than most, found it hard to build a rhythm against a Tottenham team with revenge in their eyes.

But credit them for those 13 wins, which impressed and entertained. Chelsea still head the table, with a five-point cushion. Their chance of winning the league is largely undiminished by this foreseeable stumble, just short of a less important finishing line. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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