The team who are already developing an air of Antonio Conte’s Undroppables cruise on. After fielding the same Premier League selection for the sixth successive – and successful – time, Chelsea continued their revival as they saw off Tottenham, showing the mettle to muster a comeback after going a goal behind in the first half. Two of the players who have thrived most from the Conte redesign, Pedro and Victor Moses, supplied the goals to settle a riveting local tussle. After Manchester City and Liverpool had plundered points earlier in the day, nothing less than three would suffice to return to the top of the table. Chelsea reacted ruthlessly.
It left Conte with the air of a contented manager. He acknowledged the evolution that makes his team a different proposition in the high-intensity games to the side who capitulated against Liverpool and Arsenal. “Now we are another team compared to the Liverpool and Arsenal games,” he said. “If we were the same team we would lose this game, for sure. Now we have another type of confidence. I liked our reaction a lot. We won and I am pleased because it wasn’t easy.”
For Tottenham, defeat here to a long-term bogey side is nothing new but what must hurt is that for a spell their performance showed them at their best, with a refreshed appetite for the style that had them unbeaten in the Premier League until the winter chill had set in. History suggested that Stamford Bridge might be a test too far and what felt like a week of reckoning duly delivered two heavyweight blows. After tumbling out of the Champions League in midweek, Mauricio Pochettino’s men were punctured in the league.
The Tottenham manager managed to be frustrated and philosophical at the same time: “If you want to analyse the result, Chelsea win, congratulations. If you want to analyse the 94 minutes, Tottenham had a lot of positives. But in football you need to score. In football sometimes it’s difficult to explain but this is not difficult. They were clinical in front of the goal and we weren’t.”
After the smouldering volcano of this fixture last season, he had called upon his team to be “brave” and his players began as if that instruction was still ringing in their ears.
Keeping a semblance of self-control was imperative and they started by exerting important authority in midfield, pegging Chelsea back and keeping confident possession. Ten minutes in they soared in front. Mousa Dembélé worked the ball up the left and it was moved via Dele Alli to Christian Eriksen. The Dane saw a chink of goal to aim at. His thunderous shot was laced with curl and flew into the net. It was the first time Chelsea’s defence had been beaten in 600 minutes.
Conte looked exasperated as his team could not get a foothold. The muscle in Tottenham’s midriff, with Dembélé and Victor Wanyama patrolling in front of Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen, proved a meaty barrier. David Luiz mustered Chelsea’s first shot just before the half-hour mark, a whack of a free-kick that Hugo Lloris caught comfortably.
Tottenham’s dominance was such that they continued to create strong chances. After efforts from Kyle Walker, Harry Kane and Eriksen the visitors wondered how they were not even further in front as half-time approached.
What more devastating time for Chelsea to summon some inspiration. A minute before half-time all Tottenham’s hard work was speared by a moment of glorious individual skill. Pedro picked up possession 20 yards out and wrong-footed the Tottenham defence with a touch that had a dash of Cruyff turn about it. The Spaniard bent his shot into the top corner with a flourish.
Off the hook after a pretty uncomfortable first 44 minutes, Conte delivered some choice words at half-time. Chelsea came out with enhanced determination and were soon ahead. They pressed the ball off Tottenham and broke with intent. Eden Hazard invited Diego Costa to drive forwards and he capped a bullish and clever run with a killer pass to Moses, whose shot squirted off Lloris and Vertonghen on the way in. The pendulum had swung. Chelsea’s energy levels suddenly made Tottenham look ponderous. It spoke volumes about how the balance of the game shifted that both Chelsea’s wing-backs had so much more room to get involved.
Although Tottenham tried to manufacture a comeback of their own, Chelsea’s second-half solidity was a far tougher nut to crack. Conte’s Undroppables cherished their win. Tottenham’s pain was palpable.
Conte tried hard to deflect any title talk at this stage. “It is not right to talk about this,” he said. “We have a long way in front of us. It’s important to stay humble and continue to trust in our work. Today we won a game against a really strong team. Tomorrow it’s important to think about the next game, against City, another very strong team. We have to continue to work. We don’t forget that against Arsenal and Liverpool we lost.”
In attitude and application, Conte’s Chelsea are a force to be reckoned with.TG