Saturday 24 March 2018

Chelsea starting to look unstoppable in title race

Chelsea 4 Spurs 0

Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea does an 'Old Man' celebration
Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea does an 'Old Man' celebration
Eden Hazard of Chelsea is challenged by Sandro of Spurs
Younes Kaboul of Spurs is shown the red card by Referee Michael Oliver after bringing down Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea in the penalty area
Chelsea's English defender John Terry (L) in action against Tottenham Hotspur's English defender Kyle Walker
Sandro of Spurs and Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea compete for the ball

Dominic Fifield

Chelsea's title pursuit has taken on a relentless feel, their lead at the top now seven points from a pack distracted by domestic cup competition and increasingly, perhaps perilously, pinning their hopes on games in hand.

Tottenham's wounds were largely self-inflicted. In the end, almost an hour's worth of endeavour and toil – aimed at blunting the home side's threat – was undone by a series of inexplicable second-half errors that turned this into a thrashing. Jan Vertonghen's mistake had set the tone, but the slips by Sandro and Kyle Walker in the last two minutes were laughable.

In between, the visitors lost Younes Kaboul to a red card that will leave them badly shorn of centre-halves for next weekend's derby against Arsenal. Chelsea would ideally like Tottenham to wound Arsene Wenger's team on that occasion but, at present, they can consider their own form reason enough for optimism.

This had been thunderously competitive if rather lacking in finesse, a derby fuelled by adrenalin and initially drained of quality. Jose Mourinho had bemoaned a disrupted preparation for the contest born of midweek international fixtures, though once he had selected his line-up, he endured more upheaval immediately before kick-off. Fernando Torres had been due to start up front, only to limp away from the warm-up apparently after tweaking his groin, thrusting Samuel Eto'o into the starting XI. The Cameroonian was duly clattered by Hugo Lloris after 25 seconds, having been flagged for offside, with his focus rather blurred early on.

Certainly, Spurs' spikiness in the tackle left its mark on their hosts. They had doubled up down the right with Kyle Naughton and Walker, a defensive plan forged in Sheffield, in anticipation of nullifying Eden Hazard, though the Belgian swiftly escaped to the opposite side to scuttle at his compatriot Vertonghen instead. Chelsea's leading scorer gleaned his team's best sight of goal in those initial duels, a break at speed involving Frank Lampard's header, Andre Schurrle's touch and Eto'o's lay-off sending Hazard into the area to glide around Lloris, only for the forward to spear his finish awkwardly into the side-netting. The fluidity of the build-up deserved better.

Tottenham still competed feverishly, Nabil Bentaleb and Sandro snapping into uncompromising challenges to hold the centre and the Brazilian drawing a smart save from Petr Cech with a volleyed snapshot from Gary Cahill's clearance.

Had the Algerian been as forceful with his finish after edging through the clutter from an Emmanuel Adebayor knockdown then the visitors might actually have led, but the youngster's effort was tentative and dribbled wide. His progress under Tim Sherwood has been impressive, a positive to be taken from the campaign, and he is very much his manager's man.

It was interesting to note that none of the team's seven summer signings, secured for about £100m, started here. Injuries had ruled out some but, in a derby like this, that still felt like a statement. Christian Eriksen might have illuminated an occasion like this though.

While Kaboul did plant a header at Cech, the better half-chances were the home side's, Schurrle rousing himself to deliver marginally too high for Eto'o in the centre, then latching on to Nemanja Matic's gloriously arced pass beyond a retreating back-line only to scuff his shot straight at Lloris. At that stage the frustration was welling in the stands, though it would be Spurs who imploded.

Vertonghen, never entirely content at left-back, had ambled on to possession just before the hour-mark only to slip as Schurrle closed him down. That was slack, but the Belgian's worse error was to hook the ball back while grounded towards the centre with his right-foot, his attempt to retain possession transformed into a perfect through-ball for Eto'o. The striker eased his finish beyond Lloris as Michael Dawson slid in, then celebrated by staggering towards the corner flag holding his back, bent double at his ripe old age. Whether 32 or 35, as Mourinho had pondered out loud while unknowingly being filmed by Canal Plus last month, the African is still a timely finisher.

It is actually the veteran's birthday on Monday and he will celebrate that with a hefty lead at the top of this division. Spurs' composure had drained with the concession, the referee Michael Oliver deeming Kaboul's grab at Eto'o, as the striker attempted to reach Hazard's delivery, worthy of a penalty and a dismissal.

The Frenchman, with a suspension to serve against Arsenal next Sunday, was apoplectic at the decision, his manager dumbfounded on the touchline with Dawson also hobbling off before the end. Hazard's finish from the spot was merely emphatic.

It was not until the final two minutes that gloss was added to the scoreline, with Sandro exposed as a makeshift centre-half. His indecisive prod in the six-yard box merely set up the substitute Demba Ba to convert from close-range. Within seconds. Walker was bafflingly heading back Lloris' clearance for Ba to steal possession from the goalkeeper and convert into an empty net. The visitors' challenge had disintegrated.

Chelsea felt unstoppable.


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