Saturday, March 21, 2009
Chelsea's White Hart pain
While it's easy to get a little jaded of football as the lengthy season winds towards what often seems an inevitable conclusion, days like this relight the fire in everyone.
The plotline of this remarkable day of Premier League action could only have been written by the Gods who have helped to make this competition the most thrilling in world football and as the dust finally settles on an afternoon of high drama, a wounded and stunned Manchester United may well be breathing a huge sigh of relief.
At least one of their rivals has failed to make the most of the champion's increasingly serious decline.
With the kick-off delayed by half an hour at White Hart Lane after a suspect package was found in a road behind the stadium, Chelsea had the benefit of knowing whether United were in a mood to open the title door once again, yet they failed to make the most of their advantage as Tottenham took hold of the game from the start and refused to let go.
Guus Hiddink's men knew United were behind and down to 10 men at Fulham as they took to the field at around 3.30pm and the truth was they couldn't handle the extra pressure thrust onto their shoulders.
The gap at the top of what is rapidly developing into the most remarkable title race for many-a-year would have been down to a solitary point if Chelsea had collected the win expected of them here, but the truth was the visitors were no match for a hungry Tottenham side who followed up their fine win at Aston Villa last Sunday with a deserved three points.
This has long been a favourite fixture for Chelsea players and fans alike who have christened this venue 'Three Points Lane', yet they were rarely on top this time and such was the delight of the home fans on the final whistle that you could have been forgiven for thinking it was Tottenham who were back in the title race.
This triumph merely ensures Premier League football will be back at the Lane next season, but it means so much more to a Chelsea side who well and truly fluffed their lines when the chance was there to blow the title race wide open.
A goal from Tottenham's Luka Modric condemned Hiddink to his first defeat as Chelsea manager and the Dutchman was left to rue a display that saw his side fail to capitalise on a glorious opening. ''These are the days when you have to stand up at the key moment and we failed,'' accepted a crestfallen Hiddink.
''We knew United were losing and the pressure was on for us to punish them. When you find yourself in the kitchen and it gets hot, you have to try and extinguish the fire, but we allowed Tottenham to get the better of us and you wonder whether there will be a chance as good as this for us again.
''I told the players at half time that they needed to be alert because Tottenham would come at them, but sloppy defending has cost us and we have missed a huge opportunity. It may not come our way again.''
Hiddink was brief and professional in his press briefing that he only attended due to his side's shock defeat. Assistant Ray Wilkins was due to appear as the temporary Blues boss was a rush to catch a plane and meet his father for a few hours before he joined up with his Russia squad to prepare for two crucial World Cup qualifiers.
No-one believed United would throw away the sort of advantage they established at the top of the table, but Chelsea had the chance to make them pay for their stumble and instead performed as if they didn't genuinely believe they deserved to be hailed as Premier League kings.
Spurs started brightly and Jermaine Jenas went close with a fizzing shot from the edge of the box early on before Robbie Keane warmed Petr Cech's hands with a power packed volley. The Ireland captain went even closer moments later only to be denied by the Chelsea keeper again.
It quickly developed into a feisty contest and with Wilson Palacios adding steel to a Tottenham midfield that would have struggled to cope with the power of Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard a few months ago, Chelsea could not assert any control.
In fact, as referee Mike Riley blew his whistle to bring the first half to a close, Tottenham could claim to have held the upper hand as Cech has been the keeper with more work to do in the opening 45 minutes.
Keane's energy was giving Tottenham inspiration and they started the second half in the grand manner as a burst on the flank from Aaron Lennon gave Luka Modric the chance to break the deadlock. The Croatian's low and powerful finish was classy.
With Ballack and Lampard continuing to misplace their passes and Drogba having one of his sulky days up front, there was to be no way back for Hiddink and his men. It needed a brilliant late save from Heurelho Gomes kept out John Terry's header and Alex saw his effort hit the bar in injury time, but Spurs boss Harry Redknapp believes his team deserved their win.
''We deserved it over the 90 minutes and I'd say my team are playing as well as anyone in the Premier League right now,'' said a delighted Redknapp. ''Robbie Keane was a key man for us today as he worked so hard for the team and it's a great win. We have a great talent in Modric and he won the game for us with a terrific finish. Now we have to try and keep this run of form going until the end of the season.''
Chelsea skipper Terry blurted out an expletive as he left the field and saw United's defeat confirmed on the big screens at White Hart Lane as he knows this result will have been celebrated as loudly at Old Trafford as it was in this half of north London.
Now it falls to Liverpool to see if they can exert any pressure on faltering Manchester United by beating Aston Villa at Anfield on Sunday.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wilson Palacios
Tottenham's transfer window signing matched Lampard and Ballack in the midfield on his own and turned in a powerhouse display.
FOOD WATCH: We had an extra half an hour to lap up the pre-game sweet and sour chicken, but it wasn't up to much so a second helping was not required.
FACE IN THE CROWD: England boss Fabio Capello was at White Hart Lane to check on a number of his players ahead of next weekend's international break. He will not have been impressed by Frank Lampard's poor display.
REFEREE MYSTERY: Official Mike Riley completed his pre-match warm-up fully wired up to his headphones used to speak to the fourth official during matches. Maybe he was ordering pizza for a post-match feast in the referees room?
TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Harry Redknapp has transformed this club since his arrival and this deserved victory was proof that Tottenham will be in the mix for much more than survival next season.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Champions stand up to be counted on days like this and just when they needed to prove their worth, Chelsea went missing.