London rivals fight Fergie for spotlight
We live in interesting footballing times. This was the day the landscape of the Premier League changed forever, but the storyline of the 2012-13 season is still yet to be written.
Though best-placed, Chelsea have not yet sealed their place in the Champions League, Spurs must live in hope of an Arsenal slip. A 2-2 draw leaves all three of London's giants still uncertain for next season though Andre Villas-Boas admitted "it is out of our hands".
Chelsea have had 18 managers since Alex Ferguson took the reins in November 1986, Tottenham 14. Back in November 1986, Spurs' David Pleat was counterpart to the Blues' John Hollins yet in recent years both have passed up the chance for David Moyes to be their manager. As Jimmy Greaves, an alumni of both clubs, always had it in those faraway 80s days, football remains a funny old game.
Its increasing oddity is confirmed by this being a match that might just have been the biggest of the entire season. Back in 1986, a battle to finish in the top four was a backyard concern. Now, after a title won with ease as Ferguson's final flash of dominance, it has become the most hotly-contested prize in the English game.
With Manchester United almost certainly weakened by the departure of Ferguson and the problem of bedding in a new man, an extra place of that top four might even be achievable next year. Qualifying for the Champions League for next season offers the chance to steal a financial march in that future battle.
Lost within the day's seismic news was the return of a former prodigal in Andre Villas-Boas. Even in the final dark days he spent in a Japanese-style pod at Chelsea's training ground, Villas Boas was never as unpopular as Rafa Benitez still is, despite being markedly less successful than his successor-but-one. It is not even 15 months since AVB was handed his P45 but the changes both he and his former club have been through are an indicator of the pace of events in football, another measure of the amazing survival of Ferguson at the top of the game.
Rafa Benitez, whose pre-match wish for Ferguson's "good health" was a note of detente with his old rival, has done a decent job for Chelsea. His deeper wealth of resources to Spurs has his team in a European final, and still in pole position for the Champions League. Like Villas-Boas, he has had to survive on two strikers, but at least Demba Ba is relatively reliable. His defence has suffered similar injury problems to Tottenham's, but it is behind the strikers where Chelsea outstrip their London rivals. It was from there they should have buried Tottenham.
Spurs might have Gareth Bale, but they cannot call on the depth of class that Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard offer. Tottenham's version is Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson. In the absence of Mousa Dembele and Sandro, and with Tom Huddlestone lumbering around ineffectively, David Luiz was central midfield's dominant figure, even finding the time to strike up regular conversations in Portuguese with his former manager.
The Chelsea trio of twinklers caused trouble from early on, Mata firing over when his turn had made space for a better shot and Oscar opening the scoring when stealing in on the back post to knock in Gary Cahill's header from a corner.
Benitez has benefitted from the continuing durability of players whose small builds might betray fragility. Oscar has made the most appearances in matches of any outfield Chelsea player in any season in their history; Petr Cech has reached the same number. Mata, less often a sub, has played more minutes than his partner in flair. Bale's influence was negated by Chelsea. Azpilicueta initially sat on every Bale move, before the double Footballer of the Year became a wandering star looking for action he rarely received.
Spurs' stardust came from the unlikely source of Emmanuel Adebayor, "outstanding" according to his manager. He issued a reminder of what he is too rarely capable of. His performance up to that point had been so indolent that perhaps Chelsea were lulled into a false sense of security and sat off him. From 35 yards out, his elegant loft of the ball sailed past a rooted Petr Cech. Bale, yet to touch the ball and still kept waiting, had looked a more sensible target for a pass.
"We gave them too much time to decide," said Benitez.
Ramires' power running is another factor that Spurs cannot replicate, and his 39th minute goal came from a typical surge on a fine Fernando Torres slide-rule. Had Ramires not fallen, untouched by human hand, as if shot when making a similar burst in the second half, then Chelsea might have buried Spurs but Adebayor showed another flash of potential with the flick that found Sigurdsson, whose finish across Cech was well taken. Adebayor was offside, but Chelsea suffered when not playing to the whistle. By then, Benitez's conservatism had his team retreating. They paid the price for standing off Spurs.
"We had to go for it, particularly at 2-1," said Villas-Boas. "We found a little bit more quality in our passing." "I think we are managing the squad quite well but the tempo was too high," admitted Benitez. Failure to finish off Spurs has cost him the chance to rest players at Aston Villa ahead of the Europa League final in Amsterdam. It rarely takes much to remind Benitez that he will never be taken to Chelsea hearts. On came Yossi Benayoun for Oscar and the Matthew Harding Stand loudly repeated their regularly stated view that their interim manager does not know what he is doing. They were already angry about Spurs' equaliser. "I just concentrate on my football," said Benitez.
Nothing decided, with two precious matchdays to come, Chelsea and Spurs must still concentrate on this season before they can consider what their lives might be like without Sir Alex Ferguson around.