They are supposed to be embroiled in yet another ‘crisis’ at Stamford Bridge, but a dramatic victory over London rivals Tottenham at Wembley, inspired by two-goal Marcos Alonso, showed pretty emphatically that the Chelsea spirit is very much alive, even in the post-John Terry era.
For countless years, pundits, critics and commentators have made the mistake at some point in each nseason of writing Chelsea off against a backdrop of off-field controversy, sacked managers and high profile fallings-out, but, with the exception of 2015-16, when Mourinho tookn crisis to a new level, they have always responded.
Now, after current manager Antonio Conte jettisoned star striker Diego Costa and saw his team beaten 3-2 at home by Burnley on the opening day, with Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas sent off, they have done it again.
An against-the-odds 2-1 victory over Spurs — sealed in the 88th minute — had all the hallmarks of the Chelsea teams who have gritted their teeth to beat the critics and win trophies over the last decade, only this time there was no Terry and no Gary Cahill to drive it.
This time, it was achieved by unlikely two-goal hero Alonso, backed up by David Luiz and N’Golo Kante in a performance that proves the champions are not ready to throw away their title yet.
Alonso will dominate the headlines after his superb left-foot free-kick put Chelsea ahead and his last-ditch drive under Hugo Lloriswon the game, just minutes after dominant Spurs had equalised through a Michy Batshuayi own goal, but Conte knows it goes far deeper than that.
“I want to thank my players, because they showed me great desire, great spirit, great heart and great will to fight,” he said. “Today, the fighters won. I saw a lot of positive things in a moment not easy for us, because of
suspensions and injuries. To play against Tottenham away and to win is a fantastic result. We suffered in the game, but we were always ready to be dangerous in every moment.”
Certainly, the result suggest that anyone installing Manchester United as favourites for the title so early in the season, and writing off
Chelsea’s chances in the
process, is a little premature.
“It’s not important if we are not favourites, it was the same last season,” said Conte. “We know other teams have improved but it’s important to be focused on ourselves. The club is trying to do its best in the transfer market to improve the team and squad, but I’m very happy when I see this type of game. I’m not talking about the football, but about the spirit, the heart. The only way we can get through this difficulty is to work.”
Perhaps now some of the pressure heaped on Chelsea may switch to Spurs, who have lost eight of their last 11 matches at Wembley, where they must somehow find a way of gaining home advantage in future, though manager Mauricio Pochettino is weary of the discussion.
“We need to stop this,” he said when asked about the stadium ‘jinx’. “It’s not the reason we lost the game, I think the team played really well. It’s not fair to blame Wembley, because for me it’s one of the best places in the world, if not the best, to play football. I still think we are in a much better position than when we started last season. The team is one step higher.
"We’re disappointed to lose our first home game, but the character and performance was good and it’s only he beginning of the season.”
On this occasion, Pochettino, so often the master tactician, was out-done by his rival — who surprised everyone by playing David Luiz in midfield in front of a new-look back three — which included young Andreas Christiensen.
That decision proved crucial, because Luiz was the backbone of his team’s victory in a match in which Chelsea were often on the back foot. Not only did the Brazilian have more touches and more
saving tackles than any other player in the first half, but he also won the free-kick from which Alonso scored superbly after 24 minutes.
“I think David played very well,” said Conte.” It was an amazing performance. He played with great experience and great personality. He was a point of reference for the other players.”
Tottenham were unfortunate to be behind, especially as Harry Kane hit a post, while Thibaut Courtois saved twice from the Spurs striker and once from Ben Davies in a frantic period just before half-time.
Increasingly, however, Spurs ran out of ideas in the second half, despite continuing to dominate possession through the imperious Moussa Dembele, even allowing Wllian to hit the post for Chelsea on a rare break The turning point, or so it seemed, came when hapless
Batshuayi, only on for for a matter of seconds, headed into his own net from an 83rd minute Eriksen free-kick to gift Spurs an equaliser.
The noise levels rose dramatically at Wembley as those ‘home’ fans anticipated a winner to follow, but instead they were quickly silenced when Luiz won the ball high up the pitch five minutes later. Pedro, another Chelsea substitute, accepted the gift to thread Alonso in down the left, and the full-back drilled a shot low under Lloris’ body when the Frenchman was clearly expecting a cross.
The goal was celebrated in the away end and on the Chelsea bench, as if was enough to win a trophy at Wembley and, though it is far too early in the season to even think of silverware, these are the kind of moments which tell you an awful lot about a team.
What we learned this time was that the status quo will be hard to shift. Chelsea still have the spirit of champions despite their troubles and Spurs, psychologically at least, are still that little bit short.
Lloris 6; Trippier 6 (Janssen 90) Alderweireld 6, Vertonghen 6, Davies 7 (Sissoko 80); Dembele 8, Dier 7 (Son 68), Wanyama 6, Eriksen 7, Alli 7, Kane 7.
Subs not used:
Vorm, Wimmer, Winks, Walker-Peters
Courtois 7; Azpilicueta 7, Christensen 6, Rudiger 7; Moses 7, Bakayoko 7, Luiz 8, Kante 8, Alonso 9, Willian 7 (Pedro 78; 6). Morata 6 (Batshuayi 79; 5).
Subs not used:
Caballero, Kenedy, Musonda, Tomari, Scott.
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