Sunday 25 August 2019

Chelsea draw blank as Costa dirties his bib

Spain striker's reaction to substitution snub set to land him in hot water

Tottenham striker Harry Kane attempts an overhead kick under pressure from Cesar Azpilicueta
Tottenham striker Harry Kane attempts an overhead kick under pressure from Cesar Azpilicueta
Diego Costa warms up on the sideline at White Hart Lane before returning to the bench

Jason Burt

This game was about as brooding as a benched Diego Costa. It smouldered and threatened but did not quite hit the mark.

A bit like when Costa, in a deliberate act, tossed his bib over his shoulder as he returned to his seat in the final minutes after it became apparent that he would not be going on.

The bib sailed narrowly close to Jose Mourinho's head but did not touch him. Just.

A goalless draw away from home against a strong, in-form team such as Tottenham Hotspur - who extended their unbeaten league run to 13 matches, their best in the Premier League era, as they also hunt down a Champions League place - would normally appear to be a good result. And it was a good result.


It was also another sign that Chelsea are slowly recovering from their calamitous start to the season, with Mourinho declaring that it was their best performance of the campaign.

He added that he would not be surprised if his team, unbeaten in three matches, with three clean sheets, now went undefeated for their next 10 matches.

The point is, though, that they need to. And they need wins not draws. The gap between them and the top four remains daunting. They require title-winning form from now on in to claw it back.

What is fascinating is that with the players - and manager - the club possess, they still probably have the ability to do it; although they surely have to buy a striker in the January transfer window.

What role Costa plays remains to be seen. Even though Loic Remy was absent after his partner gave birth, and Radamel Falcao was injured, Mourinho deemed it best to go without the out-of-form Costa, who had quarrelled with his manager in the midweek Champions League tie at Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Mourinho had brushed that off, with kisses and cuddles, he said, and he attempted to brush it off again after this encounter, but there is no mistaking there is a gathering Chelsea narrative.

True, he has benched big players this season and, true, Costa's turn was long overdue but there is a sense that the striker, above all, will not react well to such calculated treatment.

In Costa's stead there was the 'false nine', with Mourinho deploying Eden Hazard as his furthest player forward, and he will have felt vindicated by the Belgian's strong performance and also in that the best two chances fell his way: with a close-range header in the first half, which he sent over the crossbar, and then a fierce, angled volley back across goal, which was superbly pushed away by Hugo Lloris.

There was frustration for Spurs. Frustration that they were not able to capitalise on their advantage going into this game and frustration, also, from some of their supporters, that manager Mauricio Pochettino had played such a strong side in the Europa League tie in Azerbaijan last Thursday, with a 5,000-mile round trip and players not getting to their beds before 5am on Friday. It felt compromised.

Eight who started against Qarabag also did so against Chelsea, which, given the exertions, is an extraordinarily high number.

While Pochettino claimed that there was no physical fatigue, Harry Kane later let the cat out of the bag when he complained on social media that he "didn't feel we had the same energy today as usual".

He was right.

The truth is that this game should never have kicked off at midday on Sunday - Chelsea also had a long-distance midweek European trip, to Israel - and it suffered as a consequence. Spurs were not their usual, high-energy, pressing, relentless selves, while Chelsea were predictably cagey as they feel their way back into the season.

There was one good angle, also, to Spurs' frustration. It was another sign of the progress they have made under Pochettino that they felt disappointed in only taking a point here, although looking at their own resources they are only a Kane injury away from a crisis. He is in danger of being overplayed.

This was Mourinho in 'safe mode'. He is carrying out the diagnostic on his team, rebooting them, in the hope that confidence as well as results will return. And so this was more about not losing, about the clean sheet, than winning.

No-one could blame him even if it made for a cautious, uncompromising encounter in which Spurs did not know whether to stick or twist, and could not decide whether a point was worth preserving or risking in search of the victory.

Early into the second half there was an inevitability about the result - Lloris's save from Hazard notwithstanding - as chances, already at a premium, were no longer available for either side.

Before that, Pedro's pace off the left was Chelsea's best outlet as well as Hazard's trickery, and the Spain forward had fired over with a deflected shot from the penalty area's edge.

Spurs' best chances? There was a first-time shot from Kane that ricocheted up and bounced off Asmir Begovic's shoulder before the goalkeeper recovered and there was a low drive from Mousa Dembele, which was pushed away for a corner after his quick feet took him into space.

But it was from another corner that the clearest chance fell to Son Heung-Min, who had pulled away from Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea captain in the absence of the injured John Terry, but could not gain enough power to beat Begovic, who saved comfortably. Son later combined with substitute Erik Lamela to fire straight into Begovic's arms.

Costa was, eventually, sent to warm up, but Mourinho was happy to hold.

Whether it is a point gained or two lost will soon become apparent.

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