Carlo Ancelotti could be forgiven for attending his post-match press conference with the faint whiff of cigarette smoke trailing in his wake – indeed if he had not been a smoker before he took over as Chelsea manager there is surely a good chance that he would have adopted the habit by now.
Defeat at Tottenham Hotspur when the title race is heating up has not been Chelsea's style in recent years and their crumbling form of late is causing their affable manager to resort to a calming cigarette in times of stress. They have plenty of players who have won this title before, they have beaten the champions Manchester United twice, so why are Chelsea struggling now? Ancelotti was a generous and philosophical loser at White Hart Lane on Saturday. His rogue left eyebrow that leaps up and down when he feels under pressure during interrogation was becalmed. The destiny of the title, the Chelsea manager reminded everyone, was still in the hands of his team providing they can win their remaining three games.
If only the same could be said of his captain John Terry whose tackle on Gareth Bale for his second booking was a rash attempt to put a bright young player in his place and cost Terry's team dear. Out on the left wing it was not one of those moments when Terry needed to sacrifice himself for the greater good and his power in the air will be missed against Stoke City on Sunday.
Terry was also involved in a clash with a Tottenham fan around the tunnel at half-time. For that we can absolve the Chelsea captain. It is to be celebrated that White Hart Lane remains such a bear pit of a ground with fans and players in close quarters, but certain levels of decency have to be observed. Those weekend warriors who crane necks to abuse opposition players are frankly pathetic.
As for Ancelotti, he would like Tottenham to extend their unlikely run of victories over Arsenal and Chelsea to a win over Manchester United on Saturday in order to redress the balance of the title race in his favour. He knows that a more realistic scenario is that United will win that game and Chelsea one point ahead today, will have to beat Stoke on Sunday, Liverpool at Anfield and Wigan at home to win the title.
"I don't know [if Spurs can beat United]," Ancelotti said. "I hope so. The pressure now is normal, with three games to the end of the season. All the teams are involved in important things and important aims so to have pressure is absolutely normal.
"We have to control this but I think my players have the character and the concentration to maintain an atmosphere of calm and quiet and focus on our match. It was a tough game and it was a bad day. We didn't play how we wanted, we didn't play well.
"I think Tottenham played better than us, it can happen. So it's not a time now to be disappointed, it's a time to stay calm, to stay focused and to look forward for the next game."
If you wanted a sign of Chelsea's general disarray it came at the start of the second half when, having used their last two substitutions during the break, Didier Drogba pulled up injured as he prepared to take the kick-off. Ancelotti and Ray Wilkins appeared to be asking the fourth official Kevin Friend whether they could reverse their decision to take off Joe Cole – already getting changed by then – and instead replace Drogba. It was an argument that got the short shrift it deserved and Chelsea scarcely got close to getting a grip on the game. Spurs take fourth spot by two points from Manchester City but staying in that Champions League place will be the problem with the tougher run-in.
For the second time in four days, Tottenham were wholly deserving of their victory. Few teams manage to out-Chelsea Chelsea but Spurs adopted that relentless pressing game of their opponents and picked them off when they were at their weakest. Jermain Defoe scored a penalty after Terry's 15th-minute handball. Frank Lampard toed in Michael Ballack's 93rd-minute cross but Spurs were always in control.
Michael Dawson was excellent in front of the watching Fabio Capello and Bale looked like the best young footballer in the British game. At just 20, he is being talked about in football circles as potentially one of the best players of his generation in Europe and the manner in which he turned Paulo Ferreira inside out for his 44th-minute goal demonstrated his confidence.
"Gareth got so much hype at Southampton then came here and it was difficult," manager Harry Redknapp said. "To have gone 24 games at Spurs without being on a winning team is not easy to have hanging around your neck. He's a tougher boy now, to be honest. Every time he'd get a knock in training he'd lie down or limp off. But that doesn't happen any more. He's growing up fast and he's got everything. He can head it, too. He's a 6ft 1in left winger, who can score goals, head the ball and cross the ball. He can run all day too. It was only a matter of time before they changed the right-back [Ferreira]. At one point I thought he wasn't going to get to half-time."
Spurs' game away at City on 5 May looks like it will prove the decider on who becomes English football's new Champions League team. Tottenham have not been closer since they narrowly missed out in 2006 and in Chelsea and Arsenal they have beaten two Champions League perennials in the space of a week. They are starting to look like they belong in the elite.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Gomes; Kaboul, Dawson, Bassong, Assou-Ekotto; Bentley, Huddlestone, Modric, Bale; Pavlyuchenko (Crouch, 90), Defoe (Gudjohnsen, 78). Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Rose, K Walker, Livermore, Townsend.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ferreira (Ivanovic, h-t), Alex, Terry, Zhirkov; Deco, Mikel (Ballack, 33); J Cole (Anelka, h-t), Lampard, Malouda; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), A Cole, Kalou, Sturridge.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Tottenham Huddlestone, Pavlyuchenko; Chelsea Alex, Deco, Terry, Zhirkov.
Sent off: Chelsea Terry.
Man of the match: Dawson.
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