Friday 27 April 2018

Chelsea show steel to stake a claim as title challengers

Tottenham 2
Chelsea 4

Daniel Taylor at White Hart Lane

Andre Villas-Boas can testify first-hand now about the improvement in this Chelsea team since he was ushered from the club. There is a steel about Roberto Di Matteo's side that was not always evident during his predecessor's reign and it meant an ordeal for the well-dressed man shaking his head and rubbing his hands through his hair in the home dugout. "Andre, Andre, what's the score?" the Chelsea fans sang, and the man in question looked at his shoes and pretended not to hear.

His team had led 2-1 but there was only really a 10-minute spell at the start of the second half when Tottenham Hotspur could be said to be the better team, scoring twice and threatening to condemn the Premier League leaders to their first defeat of a season.

That apart, Chelsea played with confidence and the kind of durability that should serve them well in the title race. Juan Mata was prominently involved, scoring the two goals that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead, then setting up the substitute Daniel Sturridge to complete the comeback in stoppage-time. In defence, it is unlikely they would have been so vulnerable had John Terry not been starting his four-match ban.

Yet their elusive, nimble attacking players provided a formidable test for Tottenham that, for the most part, the home team found beyond them. "Creativity and individual brilliance," Villas-Boas said of his former team. "Oscar, Mata, Eden Hazard . . . brilliant." Mata was one of the players he had brought to Stamford Bridge. As Di Matteo said: "I've thanked him for that."

The away side had been so comfortable after taking the lead through Gary Cahill's 18th-minute volley it was a jolt, to say the least, when William Gallas's glancing header two minutes after the break, possibly helped by his fingertips, was quickly followed by Jermain Defoe pouncing on Aaron Lennon's misdirected shot to score the 200th goal of his career.

At that point Tottenham, unbeaten in a London derby at home since 2007, might have dared imagine a sixth successive win, but they would have been kidding themselves to think they deserved the lead. Chelsea never panicked or started to feel sorry for themselves. Instead they just set about re-establishing their superiority, producing some thrilling football in the process and taking advantage of the fact that their opponents were missing some of their more accomplished players.

Villas-Boas could certainly cite mitigating circumstances given that Mousa Dembele, so impressive since arriving from Fulham, had joined Scott Parker on the injury list. Perhaps that would not have mattered so much but for the fact Gareth Bale had to speed away from White Hart Lane before kick-off because his partner had gone into labour. Deprived of Dembele and Bale, it was probably not altogether surprising the home side came up so short at times.

The second comeback of the match began in the 66th minute, Mata firing in a low, left-foot drive after Gallas's poor clearance from Oscar's cross. The Spaniard's second came three minutes later, turning Eden Hazard's pass beyond Brad Friedel at the end of a slick exchange that probably epitomised the difference between the two sides. By the time Mata dispossessed Kyle Walker and slipped in Sturridge, the visiting team might easily have lost count of the number of chances they had.

The only downside from a Chelsea perspective was the carelessness at the start of the second half. The defending was particularly generous as Jan Vertonghen hooked Tom Huddlestone's free-kick across the six-yard area for Gallas to score. Villas-Boas could also reflect on several presentable opportunities to salvage something when the game was 3-2. For the most part, however, Cahill demonstrated why the absence of Terry need not be too significant.

Gallas, in stark contrast, had a difficult afternoon, at fault to varying degrees for the first three Chelsea goals. Villas-Boas tried to protect his player afterwards -- "I don't agree," he said. "I wouldn't blame anyone individually" -- but there were some straightforward errors. The Frenchman has been a great defender but in the worst moments here he looked like a champion boxer after one fight too many.

Cahill's goal was another reminder of his uncommon ability to strike the ball on the volley -- Di Matteo talked afterwards about the central defender routinely joining the club's front players in extra shooting practice -- but it originated from Gallas's weak header out from Hazard's corner. Gallas had to wave an apologetic hand after Mata's first effort and, together with Walker, did not react quickly enough during the build-up to the third Chelsea goal. As for the fourth, Walker will wince when he sees the replays of how he lost the ball to Mata on the touchline.

It had been a stodgy Tottenham performance. Huddlestone's passing has regressed badly and his partnership with Sandro lacked mobility, inferior by some distance to Chelsea's two holding midfielders, Ramires and Mikel John Obi. Perhaps more worryingly for Villas-Boas, Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson are taking their time adapting.

Early days, but Chelsea look like title contenders, just as Villas-Boas had planned but with a different manager in place.


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