Had it not happened at Stamford Bridge yesterday, Chelsea might well have been prevented from going to the top of the table by a diligent and persevering Spurs side determined to let reputation count for nothing. It had been ferocious stuff in which tackling and tempers rose in intensity in roughly equal measure for most of the match.
Chelsea, with yet another combination of their cosmopolitan playing staff on display, were not exactly bereft of ideas but they were in danger of being frustrated. It showed in their irasciblity. Spurs were a model of regimentation. David Ginola may be the only among them who has the look of a musketeer in his play but these days the team looks as though they believe in the motto of all for one and one for all.
Then came the incident on the Spurs left flank in the 62nd minute. Chris Armstrong bundled over Albert Ferrer. It looked as though it might merit a booking and Armstrong had already been booked in the first half for throwing away the ball. What followed was distinctly unsavoury. Chelsea's captain, Franck Leboeuf, needlessly ran 20 yards across the pitch to make his feelings clear to the referee. Other players snarled, and Ginola tried to play the peacemaker while still looking rather elegant.
The referee might already have decided that Armstrong had to go - if for no other reason than he was rapidly losing his authority over the proceedings - and off he went. Spurs re-grouped, a rash of substitutions followed but they were for the unravelling now. Chelsea sensed as much.
Ten minutes from the end Gianluca Vialli, who had started a League match for only the third time in the season, crossed to Gustavo Poyet whose unmarshalled drive went in off a post. The second goal arrived at the start of injury time (of which there was a copious amount in each half) as the inspirational Dan Petrescu made another dart down the right. His cross for once was the genuine article. It went beyond the far post where the substitute Tore Andre Flo made his header look elementary.
The result took Chelsea to the top of the League, on goal difference, for the first time since November 1989 when they went on to finish fifth. Vialli was aware afterwards of the importance of the reduction in the opposition ranks. "It certainly had an effect. They lost their shape and we were able to break them down," he said.
George Graham, the Spurs manager, saw it similarly. He did not argue with the dismissal of his player because two bookable offences are two bookable offences, as he said. He was less than happy with Leboeuf's chase across the pitch. "But I felt we could have got something out of the game if we hadn't gone down to 10. I was pleased with the way we played. Chelsea are a very good side. I just wish I had their squad. It must be a pleasure to walk into the dressing-room."
Spurs might indeed have got something from the game but it was never likely to be more than a point. They ensured there was no space in midfield, clearly having come to make it difficult for Chelsea. Ginola, perhaps the best player in the country these past two months, showed but briefly. Before the match he had, according to the statistics, 198 dribbles and runs to his credit this season, and though he took his total to 200 it was not a match in which he could flourish.
Chelsea were without Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux and Roberto Di Matteo, but they might not have found it much easier under Spurs' careful patrolling. Neither goalkeeper was severely examined, which was only a measure of the determination both sides showed not to let the game flow.
Gianfranco Zola was sparky enough in the first half when his left-wing crosses might have caused more discomfort to the Spurs of a few months ago. But the best discernible chance before the sending-off came when the little Italian squared a pass inside for the surging Petrescu. The Romanian charged forward and tried to place his shot past Ian Walker who spread himself well.
That, it seemed, would be the way of things until Mr Poll intervene, or, rather, was inspired to. It was a difficult game to adjudicate and the referee booked seven players in all (including Armstrong twice), more than matching his average of four per game. In his idiosyncratic programme notes, the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, observed that four draws in five games was hardly championship form and that his side must try harder. But effort was one commodity that was not in short supply yesterday. Significantly Chelsea have now gone 17 League matches without defeat, and that is a run beginning to assume ominous proportions.Reuse content