Heading for the Top

It’s the first triple brace in the Premier League history. Where will it’s author end up?

The streak has come to an end. After 102 days and 2 hours, Chelsea have finally lost another Premier League match, blowing their chance to equal Arsenal’s win record and losing an opportunity to go eight points clear ahead of Liverpool. It was an enormous sigh of relief for all neutral football fans who spent the last two years watching eleven players in blue shirts simply running away with the title. Had Antonio Conte been able to topple the White Hart Lane fortress, it would’ve been all over. Literally. With Leicester and Hull coming up next, Blues would’ve likely extended the gap to at least 10 points. In such scenario, the result of January 31th rematch at Anfield could not matter less. Alas – it’s January 5th, Chelsea are only five points ahead of everyone else and a lot of things can still happen. The Kop must be already bracing for LFC’s most important home match since 2014’s 0-2 defeat to… Chelsea.

As for now: Jürgen Klopp owes Mauricio Pochettino a big bottle of wine. The Argentinian might be the third manager who got to taste the victory over Chelsea this season – but he’s only the first one who engineered it through a complete, tactical domination and superior ability to negate the visitors’ strengths. It wasn’t like the two September fixtures, when Blues would concede early goals through lapses of concentration and then their confidence was too shot to fight back. No – this time, Spurs were reading the leaders’ antics like a book and taking the sting out of them flawlessly. At no point of time it looked like Costa will get to celebrate his fifteenth league goal; Eden Hazard, just recently dubbed ‘unplayable’ after the win over Bournemouth, was kept quiet as well. The Belgian’s best chance fell early, when hosts messed up an offside trap. He missed it. Later, he squandered another one as well.

Quite quickly, Chelsea got really frustrated with their inability to break through. Already the first misunderstanding between Costa and Pedro has led them to exchange few bitter words which got spotted by the omnipresent cameras. The Spaniard soon unleashed his angst on Danny Rose in a rather irrelevant duel, earning himself a booking. Then, David Luiz missed a free-kick attempt – and that was it; those were all dangerous chances the leaders have created before the half-time. To be fair to Antonio Conte’s team: Spurs weren’t much better. It was a cagey struggle, marked by the excellence by two midfield heroes for each team. Mousa Dembélé has won four dribbles, three tackles and misplace only one out of 33 passes he’s attempted, before he got substituted off for Harry Winks. Nemanja Matić answered with 5 tackles, 3 interceptions and 95% pass accuracy. It was a hell of a fight.

Unfortunately for the Serbian, the end of the first half has given him the reasons to feel bad about himself. At the critical moment, he absolutely needed to jump forward and close down Eriksen, who approached the final third and received a return pass from Danny Rose. At that one moment, Matić hesitated – and the cross was whipped perfectly into the box, in-between Gary Cahill and Victor Moses. With Cahill still occupied with Harry Kane in front of him, it was Moses’ duty to pick up the other Tottenham player, who popped up in the box and created a two-against-two situation. Chelsea wing-back failed, Eriksen has found the space to swing a a pitch-perfect cross – and so did Dele Alli, who directed the header into the top corner. The clock was showing 46th minute, seconds before the half-time – and, as usual in such situations, the goal scored just before the break has left a scar on the conceding side.

Antonio Conte is not the most outspoken manager in the world and his English isn’t very good yet. Because of that, we will probably never get to know what was he thinking when Spurs have literally copied their first-half goal just nine minutes after the restart. It was the same position by Eriksen, the same lack of closing down and the same lad, waiting in the box to put a header away – hell, even the same Victor Moses, arriving from behind only to watch his opponents’ back while he scores the second goal! Why didn’t Chelsea learn? Why the Dane in the white shirt has not been more aggressively attacked when already in the first half, he’s shown a crossing masterclass, when his long free-kick found Eric Dier’s head? Why wouldn’t Chelsea prevent it this time? In his post-match interview, Conte looked calm – but it’s hard to imagine his post-match dressing room without few harsh words being spoken.

It is also hard to imagine the spirit flowing through the Tottenham side after that victory. It was their fifth straight win after a home roller coaster against Burnley and overwhelming triumphs at Southampton and Watford. They’ve also just avenged that infamous 2-2 draw from the last season, in which they did have a 2-0 lead as well but bottled it in the second half. During his interview, Mauricio Pochettino has been using the word ‘competitive’ almost like a mantra. Indeed: let’s not forget that Spurs are financially not nearly as strong as the majority of their rivals for the top 3 spot. They also have a very young team that occasionally cannot keep it cool and carry the good result until the end. This time, they didn’t lose control and were not to provoked into a brutality that ended their 2015/16 campaign at Stamford Bridge. As a reward: they’ve just climbed to the 3rd spot.

Obviously, the spotlight has now fully focused on Dele Alli. Last season, they youngster from Milton Keynes was a breakout star of the entire league, scoring 10 goals and producing 9 assists in 33 league appearances – most of them, between January and May. A year has passed and not much changed: Alli again had a slow league start with just 3 goals in the initial 11 appearances. He still isn’t a particularly good passer. He still isn’t an amazing dribbler either. His main strengths are: positioning and composure while taking the shot. Last night, everyone and their dog expected him to play as a number 10, in a supporting role for Harry Kane. The reality reversed that assumption: it was Kane, who would often drop back to avoid annoyingly effective marking from David Luiz. Again: Alli is not a genius while on the ball – but when a player is so strong while he moves without it, all he needs is a good pass.

These days, that can easily be arranged by Christian Eriksen. For the last two years, it was his erratic form that earned Spurs the reputation of a team that only rarely shows it’s true quality. Even during the previous, highly successful campaign, he had a bunch of very underwhelming performances in December and March. This season, even though his first-squad position remained uncontested, he couldn’t find the net in the league for over 3 months – and his assist tally was stuck for many weeks at 3. It seems that him, Alli, but also Harry Kane are all the types of players who need to ‘unlock’ themselves before they start to play really well; and once that happens, they go on a streak. Well – their time seems to be now. With a handful of decent fixtures ahead and a huge boost of confidence, they’ll definitely be up there, searching for a chance of another top 3 finish.

Eriksen’s mobility has finally exposed previously faultless Cahill.

Their next objective shall be West Bromwich – the team they have a lot of scores to settle. For one: it was WBA that threw a spanner in the works of Pochettino’s machine last season. From the day of a 1-1 home draw with Baggies, Tottenham have failed to win a single out of their three remaining league games and eventually handed the title to Leicester. To make it even worse: it was West Brom again that stopped Spurs’ winning streak this season too – and almost defeated them at Hawthorns in October, sending the London club on a month-long run of draws. Additionally, Tony Pulis’ team has just found good goalscoring form and with Matt Phillips or Chris Brunt providing the service for Salomon Rondón – they are not all doomed to perish next week. So, when Pochettino mentioned the need to carry the good winning spirit into the next game – he knew exactly what he was talking about.

On paper, Chelsea have a much simpler task. With no Europa League to deal with and teams like Leicester and Hull coming up next, The Blues are still in a prime position to at least maintain the current, 5-point gap at the ascent of the league table. Foxes might have the advantage of the home turf in a week, but they’ve also just lost Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani, who departed for Africa Cup of Nations. Same applies to an absolutely dire Hull side: without Dieumerci Mbokani and Ahmed Elmohamady, their chances look even slimmer than usual. At the same time, Liverpool will be travelling to Old Trafford, where they haven’t been able to win since March 2014. If things go according to the plan, this all means that Gameweek 23 and the Liverpool vs Chelsea fixture will be a must-win encounter for Jürgen Klopp. He definitely is capable to pull off a win – but at the moment, even despite the Wednesday night setback, this league is still all about Chelsea.

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