The most damaging part for Chelsea, suffering their first league defeat since losing against Arsenal at the end of September, has nothing to do with it stopping them establishing a record in the Premier League era of 14 successive wins in a single season. It would have been a nice one to chalk up, but a team with their ambitions will be far more distressed about what it means for the league table and the confidence it might give Tottenham Hotspur, seven points back, to think they can still play a considerable part in the title race.
Dele Alli’s goals certainly ought to encourage Spurs on a night when their supporters endured opposition songs poking fun that they “won the league in black and white”, referring to the fact that the last time the team from White Hart Lane finished as champions was back in 1961. Alli scored one at the end of the first half and another early in the second period. Both were headers and the England international has managed two goals in each of his past three games.
Alli is in the best scoring form of his life and his latest brace was the most important of the lot given its impact on the top four and the braking effect it had on the league leaders, arriving here with their chests puffed out after 13 wins in a row.
It still counts as a remarkable feat even if that will be little consolation as they reflect on a sapping night against one of the teams they find it particularly difficult to lose to. Chelsea have tended to have easily the better of these encounters: this was their fifth defeat out of 50 Premier League meetings. Yet Spurs, lest it be forgotten, were high on confidence on the back of their own productive run of form.
They have now won five successive league fixtures. Their prize is to go third and push Arsenal down to fifth, and Mauricio Pochettino can reflect on a hugely satisfying evening’s work bearing in mind his switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation, deliberately set up to nullify Chelsea’s wing-back system.
From Chelsea’s perspective, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the performance was that as soon as Alli scored his second, nine minutes after the break, the home team were rarely endangered. Until that point, nobody could doubt Chelsea’s effort or that, at 1-0 down, this was a side that seemed mortally offended by the idea of losing.
After that, however, there was not a great deal of personality from the team in blue and the home supporters could bask in one of those nights, under the floodlights, when it felt like a tremendous pity White Hart Lane, as we know it, is being lost to the bulldozers.
It was strangely meek from Chelsea given there was still time to save themselves and it was out of character, too, given there were other parts of the match when it was clear to see the competitive qualities that had helped them reach the league’s summit.
At one point in the first half Diego Costa seemed to forget he was supposed to be irritating the opposition defenders and turned on Pedro for not being on the same wavelength to receive a pass inside the penalty area. The two players were still chuntering away at one another the next time play stopped. It never looks good when two team-mates are arguing on the pitch but those were the moments when we could be absolutely certain how much this contest mattered to Chelsea.
Equally, Costa did not do an awful lot in the last 35 minutes when his team really needed some extra inspiration and after an encouraging start to the second half their performance was perhaps epitomised by the moment, at 1-0, when Eden Hazard had a headed opportunity to equaliser. Hazard, for all his gifts, is not a natural in those positions but this was a particularly tentative effort, almost as if he was frightened of getting bashed in the process.
It was a spiky, absorbing contest, simmering with occasional tensions and passing reminders about the sporting enmity and lingering bad feeling from that wild and infamous encounter at Stamford Bridge last May. Alli will dominate the headlines but Victor Wanyama was the outstanding performer. Harry Kane found it difficult to get away from Gary Cahill but Alli now has seven goals in his past four games.
The strange thing about the latest two was their similarity. On both occasions it was the same three players linking up – first Kyle Walker, then Christian Eriksen and, finally, Alli. Walker’s determination to push forward had brought defenders towards him. Eriksen was in a better position to clip the ball into the penalty area and when Walker turned a short pass back the Dane picked out Alli with the right‑sided delivery. To complete the sense of deja vu, Alli had found space in between César Azpilicueta and Victor Moses on both occasions, scoring with two precise headers.
Chelsea might reflect the game could have taken an entirely different course if Hazard had done better with the chance that came his way, four minutes in, but that was their only clear opportunity of the opening half and, apart from a brief flurry early on, there was not a great deal else to trouble Hugo Lloris after the break.
Spurs were seldom threatened once Alli’s second header went in and they will miss these loud, triumphant nights when this stadium changes forever.TG