Tottenham Hotspur’s title charge skidded to a halt at the London Stadium as Manuel Lanzini struck a second-half goal that was celebrated as lustily by Chelsea fans as it was by the West Ham faithful.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men arrived on a nine-game winning streak and a mission to slash Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table to a single point but they performed sluggishly and left with nothing but regrets. Chelsea will be champions if they beat Middlesbrough on Monday and West Bromwich Albion on Friday. For the second season in a row Spurs have tripped up just as they gained momentum that spawned hopes of glory. They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, then like their dreams, they fade and ... well, West Ham fans know the rest, and so do Spurs, forever blowing opportunities.
In fairness this was not a terrible display by a team that have undoubtedly made progress this season but Pochettino’s side did fall below the standard they set in recent months when whittling Chelsea’s lead down from 13 points to four. There was an unfamiliar stodginess to their play and their defence wobbled uncharacteristically. That contrasted with the vigour of a West Ham side battling to guarantee their own survival in the top flight, alleviate pressure on Slaven Bilic and heap misery on their London rivals. Job done.
It was at this stage last season that Spurs unravelled in the title race, a draw at home to West Brom betraying a loss of nerve that resulted in Pochettino’s team failing to win any of their last four matches. Winning here would strengthen the conviction that they have evolved since then but Spurs began tentatively and never quite found their rhythm, even if Adrián had to make a handful of decent saves to prevent them from taking the lead.
The atmosphere at kick-off was as electrifying as it can get in an arena that tends to suck energy out of a football crowd. A crunching challenge by Eric Dier on Cheikh Kouyaté in the third minute added fuel to the fervour. But mostly West Ham were on top in a helter-skelter opening. Home fans leapt to their feet in anticipation of a goal when André Ayew clipped the ball into the path of Lanzini, whose run from deep caught Kyle Walker off-guard. Mercifully for the England international Lanzini skewed a feeble shot wide.
Walker started despite reported disagreements with his manager over fitness and a mooted transfer, and most of the trouble that West Ham went on to cause came down his flank, where Aaron Cresswell made the sort of raids that Walker usually inflicts on others. That was another thing for the manager to discuss with the defender.
In the 12th minute Cresswell sent a dangerous cross to the back post where Byram headed wide. Moments later Walker was caught out again and was booked for clipping Lanzini.
Spurs’ best moment came midway through the first period, when Adrián made a rigmarole of saving a long-range shot by Harry Kane. José Fonte did well to block Dele Alli’s follow-up, then Kane tried again from 15 yards and Adrián redeemed himself by sticking out a foot to divert the ball over the bar. Dier went close with a header from the ensuing corner but Adrián blocked that, too.
Hugo Lloris was unflustered until the 27th minute when he charged out of his box to thwart Lanzini. He did so in a manner that only goalkeepers seem to get away with, hurling himself knees-first at the ball and then following through to take out the opponent. West Ham’s fiery protests cut no ice with Anthony Taylor.
Christian Eriksen tried to give the home side something else to worry about but his low shot from 25 yards fizzed just wide. But that was Spurs’ only effort at goal after the earlier salvo. So at half-time the hosts were more satisfied than the visitors. And smiles were probably forming on the faces of any Chelsea players tuning in.
Spurs had 45 minutes to avert deceleration in the title race but they found nothing in the tank. Ayew let them off when he blasted over the bar from the edge of the area. The Ghanaian was denied a chance to atone when Jonathan Calleri overhit an easy through-ball.
Walker flashed his attacking quality by splitting West Ham’s well-drilled defence with a sharp through-ball. But Eriksen fluffed the resultant chance, a gentle sidefooter from eight yards never likely to beat Adrián. Son fired off a better effort a few minutes later but the goalkeeper saved again. Then West Ham finally summoned the cutting edge to punish Spurs.
Unsurprisingly the danger came first from the left wing, Cresswell delivering a cross to the back post. Ayew could not get a decisive touch as the Spurs defence panicked but the ball rolled to Lanzini, who was free six yards from goal. He lashed it into the net and ran to savour the acclaim of the crowd. The fact that a crash barrier collapsed amid the celebrations, injuring one fan, went unnoticed by most spectators but demonstrated that questions remain about this stadium’s suitability for such events.
Spurs never looked like equalising. Indeed Calleri should have deepened their misery after nicking the ball off Toby Alderweireld but he shot too close to Lloris. No matter, the damage was done.TG