Tottenham Hotspur welcomed Chelsea in what was undoubtedly the biggest game of the 13th round of this season’s Premier League. With the teams entering the clash in fourth and third place, respectively, and with Arsenal breathing down their necks in fifth, any points won against each other would’ve been considered vital by both sides.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino had a few players missing for this encounter. Fullbacks Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier were both out with groin problems, midifelder Mousa Dembele was out with an ankle injury, while centre-back Davinson Sanchez suffered a hamstring problem. Given the situation, the Argentinian went with a flexible version of 4-2-3-1 formation and this line-up:
Hugo Lloris was in goal, with the experienced centre-back Toby Alderweireld joined by young Juan Foyth ahead of him, and Ben Davies and Serge Aurier covering the defensive flanks. Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko acted as the double pivot, while the trio of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min played behind striker Harry Kane.
Maurizzio Sarri had slight worries over the availability of Eden Hazard, Mateo Kovačić and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but all three eventually made it and the full squad was at the Italian’s disposal.
Kepa Arrizabalaga stood between the posts. The usual duo of Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta flanked centre-backs David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger in defence. Jorginho anchored the three-man midfield where he was joined by Kovačić and N’Golo Kante. Hazard and Willian supported Alvaro Morata upfront.
The First Half
Spurs pushed forward straight from the start, earning two corners within a minute, but they coudn’t make them count. Still, they managed to impose themselves on the game and get it under their control early. Two minutes later, Aurier found Kane with a good cross, but Kepa made an easy save of Kane’s header. Morata did well at the other end to get around his marker and at the end of a cross from Willian, but he failed to trouble Lloris.
But it was Spurs who still had control, and just over seven minutes in, Kane made Luiz commit a foul out wide on the right side. Eriksen whipped the ball in and Alli’s flicked header was enough to beat Kepa.
Son really should have at least doubled the score soon afterwards. Within the next five minutes, the Korean had three separate opportunities to do so, but it was Kane who eventually did.
Minute 16 was underway when the England striker took a sudden shot from some 25 yards. It wasn’t a great shot, but Kepa had his vision blocked, and his only reaction was to shake his head when he saw the ball hit the net.
Chelsea were all over the place at this point. They couldn’t get anything right, and though they did occasionally threaten with quick counterattacks, there was nothing they could do to stop their opponents from causing them problems time and again.
The only danger for the home side at this point was getting too comfortable, which they did on occasion. Kovačić made the most of one such moment with 26 minutes gone by stealing the ball high up the pitch and instigating a move which ended with Morata getting caught offside instead of slamming in from six yards.
However, Pochettino’s men soon snapped out of it, and after another brilliant piece of play by Eriksen, Kepa stopped Alderweireld from adding to the scoreline from close range.
The game entered a more physical phase after half an hour as an intense battle grew in the middle of the pitch and Chelsea slowly grew into the contest. They were beginning to find their feet and Hazard finally started making himself seen and giving Spurs players something to think about; but the Belgian couldn’t do it all on his own. The midfield trio behind him still seemed sloppy and a bit irresponsible in possession, especially Kovačić, while Jorginho often left too much space in front of the back four for Spurs’ attacking players to exploit.
Right before the halftime whistle, Alli and Eriksen combined well again in that space and set Son up for another great chance, but Kepa was very quick to get down and pull it out of the bottom corner.
Even though he was by far Chelsea’s best player in the first 45 minutes, Hazard rounded the period off by getting booked for a foul on Davies from behind. The booking certainly added to his frustration as he had previously had two penalty appeals denied by referee Martin Atkinson.
The Second Half
Chelsea looked far more stable after the break. The powers of the two teams reached a fine balance, before the visitors started turning the screw even more and gradually pushed their hosts back. They were two goals down, but they weren’t giving up just yet.
However, just as minute 54 was about to run out, Spurs broke through Son. The Korean beat Jorginho with sheer pace wide down the right, entered the box and turned inside past Luiz far too easily, before slotting past Kepa and making amends for his first-half misses.
With no time to lose, Sarri reacted by introducing Pedro Rodriguez and Ross Barkley for Morata and Kovačić, the two poorest performers (with the possible exception of Jorginho).
Chelsea players understandably grew frustrated and their game disintegrated again, and there were a few moments of aggressive behavior between the two sets of players. But with the scoreline convincingly on their side, Spurs were still in full control, and they could have added a fourth in the 67th minute as Chelsea’s defence was caught on their heals. Son and Sissoko set up Kane for a clear-cut chance and the striker whacked it over the bar, completely unobstructed from six yards.
Two minutes later Kane almost turned provider as he set up Alli for a free shot from 10 yards, but Alli missed the top corner by an inch or two.
Having come on to make a difference, Barkley and Pedro weren’t doing anything to improve their team. In fact, their spirit seemed to have wavered completely since the pair had been introduced. Only Willian and Hazard were trying to do something but even their efforts were being dealt with by the excellent Spurs.
With 14 minutes remaining, Sarri threw his last card on the table in the form of striker Olivier Giroud, and 60 seconds later Son left the pitch to standing ovations and made way for Erik Lamela.
Towards the end, Spurs retreated into their own half, kept their focus in defence and looked to hit occasionally on the break. One such moment arose in the 83rd minute when Kane broke forward, danced past an opponent and shot from the edge of the box, but Kepa saved it comfortably.
But Chelsea somehow did manage to pull one back in the 85th minute. Finally having a proper target to aim for, Azpilicueta delivered a good cross and Giroud rose high to reach it and slam it in from close range.
Pochettino decided to give the last few minutes to young Harry Winks, and took out Alli.
The game could have easily taken an interesting turn a minute later. Barkley found Pedro with a good cross and the former Barcelona forward blasted goalwards from around 15 yards, missing the top corner by an inch. It was the first moment the two of them had caught the eye, but the opportunity went begging. Barkley was involved again soon afterwards with his shot being blocked by Aurier, before he set up Alonso for one which the Spaniard launched sky-high.
It’s not very difficult to explain what happened in this game. Spurs entered it as a proper contestant. They were motivated, focused, they had a plan and they delivered a lesson on performing in a football match. It has been a long time since they played this well, though not unheard of since the era of Mauricio Pochettino began back in 2014.
It isn’t that easy, however, to explain what happened to Chelsea. In stark contrast to their host, they lacked any kind of organization, focus, and positional awareness. On top of all that, any passion they showed came in the form of frustration. Sarri will certainly not be happy, but there’s nothing for them to do now but to try and bounce back next week against Fulham.
As for the table, Spurs have now leaped over Chelsea and sit third with 30 points to their name, three less than Liverpool in second and two more than Chelsea. However, they have a much more difficult task next week as they face Arsenal at the Emirates in what should be a very interesting North-London Derby.
SPURS: Lloris 7, Alderweireld 7, Foyth 6.5, Davies 6.5, Aurier 7, Sissoko 7.5, Dier 7, Alli 8 (87′ Winks N/A), Eriksen 8.5, Son 8 (77′ Lamela N/A), Kane 8.
CHELSEA: Kepa 7.5, Luiz 6.5, Rudiger 7, Azpilicueta 5, Alonso 5, Jorginho 4, Kante 6, Kovačić 5 (68′ Barkley 5), Hazard 7.5, Willian 7 (76′ Giroud 7), Morata 5 (68′ Pedro 5.5).
MAN OF THE MATCH: Christian Eriksen (Spurs).
GOALS: Alli 8′, Kane 16′, Son 54′, Giroud 85′.
YELLOW CARDS: Rudiger 19′, Hazard 45, Jorginho 72′.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson.
DATE & VENUE: November 24, 2018, Wembley Stadium, London.
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