Sunday 18 February 2018

Chelsea summon ominous response after Spurs breach their defence

Chelsea 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1

Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante tangles with Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama in the Blues’ derby victory at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante tangles with Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama in the Blues’ derby victory at Stamford Bridge yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy

In what is looking an increasingly serious title challenge from Chelsea, Antonio Conte's team were faced with a new challenge of their own - but one that only allowed them to show that they are "another team"; a new team, reaching new heights and looking like they really can stay on top of this league.

Because, after just 11 minutes, Christian Eriksen became the first man to breach Conte's three-man defence, as Spurs became the first side to score against them in 601 minutes of football since Mesut Ozil bounced the ball past Thibaut Courtois in that 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal as long ago as September 24.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard in action with Tottenham's Kyle Walker at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Childs/Reuters
Chelsea's Eden Hazard in action with Tottenham's Kyle Walker at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Childs/Reuters

Conte described this concession as a "big test". That was hard to dispute, even if it was just one goal, because it tested how much Chelsea's run was down to momentum; how much was down to the perception that they were so strong rather than the reality.

They rose to that test, as they have clearly risen as a team, and the reality is that they are proper title challengers. Seven successive wins, for the first time since 2007, underlines that. Even though this was the toughest of those victories, it only meant it was the most impressive. Conte explained why, referencing the humiliation at Arsenal as well as the 2-1 home defeat to Liverpool it followed.

Chelsea's David Luiz and Gary Cahill in action during their match against Spurs at Stomford Bridge. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Chelsea's David Luiz and Gary Cahill in action during their match against Spurs at Stomford Bridge. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

"We are more complete," Conte said. "If we were the same team as against Liverpool and Arsenal, we lose today. Now, we are another team. We have another type of confidence."

They have another quality to draw on: resilience. That first goal conceded in eight matches merely resulted in Tottenham's first league defeat of the season. It was all the more fitting that the resurgent Victor Moses hit the winner for a resurgent team.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte in action yesterday
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte in action yesterday

That isn't the first time Spurs have blown a lead at Stamford Bridge in the last few months, of course, but it's difficult not to conclude that collapse in May that ultimately cost them the 2015-16 title has caused some of their recent problems and loss of intensity.

That should make this defeat all the more galling for Pochettino, though, because it was a match when they seemed to have recovered some of those qualities. It was also a match when they became the first to figure out how to play against Conte's three-man defence.

It was not just that Chelsea had conceded a goal for the first time since the Arsenal defeat. It was that same feeling of inferiority for Conte's side - at least at the start. Tottenham were pressing Chelsea back with an impressive vigour, a vigour that was similar to when Liverpool won here. Conte admitted that.

Spurs were dangerously pinballing the ball around Thibaut Courtois's box, until Harry Kane eventually had it in the net after five minutes. That was ruled offside, but nothing could be done about Eriksen's strike, from any perspective. On 11 minutes, the Dane brilliantly powered the ball into the roof of the net, for a deserved lead.

So, now Conte faced that first real "test" for some time, and something that could yet be another juncture moment in their overall title challenge. His three-man defence had finally been breached, his grand plan had buckled a bit.

What was Conte going to do?

He was going to get even more hands-on than usual, immediately directing his players in an even more frenzied way. If this just seemed an outpouring of emotion, though, it was actually impressive calculation. He was concentrating on the more intricate elements of that grand plan. Conte was directing his players where to go and, crucially, instructing them to push much higher up the pitch. It began to tell, with warning served when Eden Hazard pounced on a Hugo Lloris pass.

The goalkeeper stopped the shot coming from that, but he could do nothing about Pedro's glorious curled strike just before half-time.

As the ball swerved around Lloris's outstretched arm, it was clear that the game had turned too. Chelsea were in full control after the break, and it only took a matter of minutes to go into the lead. Diego Costa stormed down the left, before squaring for Moses to fire the ball in off Jan Vertonghen. There was then a 15-minute spell then when Chelsea looked like they could subject Spurs to the type of beating that Manchester United and Everton endured at Stamford Bridge.

That didn't quite happen, and Spurs did rally to at least stem the flow and begin to put pressure on Chelsea again for the last 15 minutes. It was probably for that reason Pochettino insisted after the game that he has "no worry, no concern" about his side's recent run.

"After that game you need to feel proud," the Argentine said. "The effort was brilliant. We came after going out of the Champions League in Monaco, which was tough. The answer from the players was clear. If you analyse the 94 minutes, I think we deserved more. If you analyse the result, well done to Chelsea."

You can see where Pochettino is coming from, and it would be over the top to get too worried about his project with a very young team, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have big problems to solve right now.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have Manchester City away next. Another big game, another big test, but it is telling that it feels like Pep Guardiola will be the manager with much more to figure out. Chelsea are the current standard-setters.

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