It will soon become time to ask who can stop Chelsea.
If it is to be Manchester United, then next Sunday at Stamford Bridge is when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have to prove it. The talk has been that the European champions had not met any serious opposition, yet raiding parties to north London have now returned with a full complement of points from Arsenal and Tottenham.
Both have been open games, in the manner apparently demanded by Chelsea’s owner, and could therefore have finished differently, but the outcome has been just each time. All credit to Tottenham yesterday, nevertheless, for playing their part in one of the games of the season, above all in their dramatic – and frankly unexpected – revival at the start of the second half, turning a 1-0 deficit into a lead.
For a while the force was with them, until the admirable Juan Mata scored twice in three minutes; a fourth goal on the break, which the Spaniard set up for Daniel Sturridge, always looked possible.
Overall, as both managers agreed, quality told and the fact that Tottenham were missing the injured Mousa Dembélé and also Gareth Bale, who withdrew shortly before kick-off to be with his pregnant girlfriend, proved a predictable handicap. Sandro and Tom Huddlestone looking pale in comparison.
Jermain Defoe was better, much better, in an enthralling duel with his England team-mate Gary Cahill, who was a worthy stand-in for John Terry. As the shield in front of the back-four, John Obi Mikel has in the past been what used to be called the “boo-boy” but nobody was booing yesterday. Ashley Cole had an excellent first half, then found Aaron Lennon a handful at times; it was the winger’s direct running that brought Spurs back into the game towards the end of the first half after Cahill had volleyed Chelsea in front.
“We showed great strength of character to come back in the second half,” Andre Villas-Boas said. At 2-1 the Tottenham manager, wanted to “calm things down” but the White Hart Lane crowd have never appreciated a softly-softly approach and they were impatient whenever the build-up was slower. Whatever regrets Villas-Boas may have had about his time at Chelsea and not being allowed to finish what he had started, he was generous in his praise for the attacking midfield trio that his successor Roberto Di Matteo has been allowed to assemble, calling them “amazing” and admitting of the team as a whole, “they’re on top of their game”.
They were early on here, sharper and more threatening from the start and taking the lead in the 17th minute. Eden Hazard’s corner from the left was headed up in the air by the home captain and former Chelsea stalwart William Gallas, dropping nicely for Cahill to hit a screaming volley that took an insignificant deflection off Steven Caulker on its way into the roof of the net.
Mata ought to have brought about a more secure half-time lead, shooting wildly over the bar after Brad Friedel parried his initial effort. In between times, however, Spurs had their moments, not least because some of Petr Cech’s handling was less reliable than usual.
The worm’s-eye view from the press-box at pitch level made the football look frenetic, but could not obscure the quality which together with the excitement made this such an enjoyable occasion.
It was already a good game before the burst of four goals in 22 minutes as the second half opened took it to another level.
Chelsea’s fans, outnumbered 10 to one, had been the noisier until the stadium came alive as the away team’s defence dozed in a manner that must have infuriated Terry. Huddlestone, making his one significant contribution, swung a free-kick beyond the far post that an unmarked Jan Vertonghen deftly hooked square for Gallas, equally unattended, to nod in, via his hand.
Cech had to make a smart save from Vertonghen and only eight minutes after the equaliser, Lennon’s low cross – or mishit shot? – was swung in by Defoe for the 200th goal of his career and one of the most typical. Just as unpredictably Chelsea regained the initiative, suddenly looking irresistible again as they pushed forward.
Mike Dean turned down penalty appeals from Cole and Fernando Torres, neither of whom would agree with the neutral view that he had a fine game. It did not matter.
In the 65 minute another unconvincing clearance by Gallas landed at the feet of Mata, who drove the ball low past Friedel and after three frantic minutes in which Defoe at one end and then Torres were denied, Mata began and finished a lovely move by sweeping in Hazard’s perfect pass.
If Mata had completed his hat-trick later by lifting the ball over Friedel, it would have been overly harsh on both Spurs and their goalkeeper, who had not been at fault for any of the goals but may now find himself left out for Hugo Lloris. He was left utterly exposed for the final goal, inevitably made by Mata, who robbed Kyle Walker by the touchline and rolled a cross for the substitute Sturridge to tap in.
It was Chelsea’s first success since 2005 on a ground where they once seemed invincible and it sent a powerful message, even if their manager wishes to obscure the true significance for now. “There are 30 games still to play,” he said. “I think you have to wait until the Christmas period.”
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Friedel; Walker, Gallas, Caulker, Vertonghen; Huddlestone (Livermore, 67), Sandro; Lennon, Sigurdsson, Dempsey (Adebayor, 74); Defoe.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Mata, Oscar (Sturridge, 83), Hazard (Lampard, 90); Torres
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Mata (Chelsea)
Match rating: 9/10