London – The script for Tottenham Hotspur at what must be referred to as the new Wembley stadium has taken on a standard feel. They arrive with great expectations and leave with their dreams in tatters.
They had defeated Chelsea in the 2008 League Cup final but, before this visit, it was eight appearances and a single win – and that was the largely meaningless one against CSKA Moscow in the final Champions League group phase tie earlier this season.
Remember the Portsmouth disaster in the FA Cup semi-final of 2010? Or the pasting at the hands of Chelsea at the same stage of this same competition two years later? Their supporters do.
It was supposed to be different here. Mauricio Pochettino’s team had found a rare groove, eating into Chelsea’s lead at the top of the Premier League in the process. The club were on their best run of results since 1960. It only made the jolt of another high-profile reverse more difficult to take.
Spurs did not bottle it. They showed heart to find two equalizers, with Harry Kane’s improvised header for the first a gem. Christian Eriksen provided both of the assists. Denmark’s answer to David Beckham was outstanding and his whipped delivery for Dele Alli’s goal carried shades of Goldenballs.
Tottenham hogged 63 percent of the possession and Pochettino was entitled to lament how “modern football does not pay you what you deserve”. After Kane had equalized for 1-1 in the 18th minute, Spurs made all of the running until the Chelsea substitute Eden Hazard’s threaded finish for 3-2 on 75 minutes.
Hazard’s intervention stemmed from Chelsea’s only corner of the game. Tottenham had 11. But it was Chelsea’s ruthlessness that was the standout feature. Antonio Conte knows how to win the big prizes and so do most of his players. Pochettino denied that the greater knowhow had made the difference but it was a factor that could not be overlooked.
Alli had tried to close down Hazard on his goal only to be blocked off by Nemanja Matic. It was a snapshot of Chelsea’s streetwise edge. Matic’s blockbuster merely salted Tottenham’s wounds.
Pochettino’s team had started nervously and, until Kane’s equalizer, it had been all Chelsea. Great players change games. Eriksen’s cross had fizz but it was low. Kane made his calculations in a heartbeat. He would stoop and guide a back-flicked header towards the far corner, using the pace on the ball to get it there. He had plenty to do. The way that he executed the skill made it look easy.
When the team-sheets had landed, Spurs must have felt a lift. There was no Diego Costa for Chelsea and, more significantly, no Hazard. Then again, when Conte was able to bring them on – plus Cesc Fàbregas – it amounted to a show of strength. When Pochettino looked at his bench, he had no attacking game-changers.
Pochettino had decided to revert to 3-4-2-1 – the formation with which he had beaten Chelsea at White Hart Lane in January – and he was also determined to keep Son Heung-min in the lineup. The only way to do both was to shoehorn him in at left wing-back.
It was a curious call. Son had scored eight goals in his previous six appearances, largely as a center‑forward. What he had not done was distinguish himself with his defensive work and it was a needless tackle on Victor Moses with which he conceded the penalty for Chelsea’s second.
It was a psychological test for Tottenham and, in that context, it had been impossible to ignore the trauma that had gripped them on Thursday, when Ugo Ehiogu, the under-23s coach, collapsed at the training ground with the heart attack that would take his life. The tragedy has devastated everybody at the club. It had to have affected the preparations on Friday.
Willian’s penalty conversion came against the run of play but, once again, Tottenham responded. Alli had infuriated Chelsea with a no-look tread on David Luiz’s lower leg. Was it deliberate? Only Alli knows. It did look odd that when he felt his studs sinking into something that was not the turf, he did not look back to see what it was.
Conte had raged at Alli for going to ground too easily but the midfielder would find a seam to score his 20th goal of the season. Tottenham could eye a first FA Cup semi-final win since 1991 when the commentator Barry Davies wondered whether Paul Gascoigne was going to have a crack with a 30‑yard free-kick against Arsenal. He did, you know.
Instead, it turned out to be the club’s seventh consecutive defeat at this stage of the competition. Aren’t Spurs supposed to be a cup team? Pochettino maintained that “this is the way we want to play”. Just without the lapses and the heartbreak.
The Guardian Sport