As Guus Hiddink boarded his plane back to Amsterdam last night for the international break that then takes him on to Russia, he will have reflected on this, the one that got away and with it, perhaps, the slim hopes of the Premier League title also. Sloppy, wasteful and, for the first time under him, an intimation from the Chelsea manager, interim or permanent, that "gifted players" at his disposal had perhaps believed the hype a bit too much. Again. They let him, and Chelsea, down.
"It was a huge opportunity missed, knowing that United were 2-0 down," Hiddink said, containing his rage. Just. "By the time the team had woken up they were down." But that opportunity to close the gap at the top to a single point was tossed away, and the Dutchman's eighth game in charge ended with a first defeat. "These are the moments to strike," Hiddink added.
Because of a delayed start – a suspect vehicle meant the match kicked off at 3.30pm – Chelsea knew what had happened at Craven Cottage. It made it all the more annoying for Hiddink, whose ire must have been directed at lacklustre displays by Michael Ballack and Nicolas Anelka in particular. Still, Spurs were indebted to two outstanding saves late on from Heurelho Gomes – palming away John Terry's point-blank header from a free-kick and tipping another header, this time from Alex, on to the crossbar in injury time. Not that Spurs, bold and positive, didn't deserve their victory, courtesy of a fine strike from the impressive Luka Modric even if, for his intelligence, his calm in the eye of a raging storm of a London derby, Robbie Keane was the stand-out presence.
Spurs are resurgent under Harry Redknapp, who boldly claimed that his team were playing as well as any in the League and that all fear of relegation was now banished. Instead it is onwards and upwards and a tilt at grabbing that seventh spot, and Europa League football next season.
Qualifying for next year's World Cup is, for the next 10 days at least, Hiddink's primary concern after he visits his sick, elderly father today before flying to Moscow for two games – Russia at home to Azerbaijan and away to Liechtenstein. It may be somewhat different to the white heat and fury of this encounter.
How Chelsea missed Ricardo Carvalho. A swollen ankle ruled out the defender and soon Spurs were stretching their opponents, with Jermaine Jenas's drive narrowly clearing the bar and, twice, Keane being presented with opportunities, forcing a parry from Petr Cech with a half-volley after Alex's error, and then wasting an opportunity with a side-footed shot, held by the goalkeeper, following a barrelling run by Vedran Corluka.
From Chelsea, there was no threat. And then they fell behind. Ballack was to blame, firstly by surrendering possession and then by failing to track Modric. Ballack's loose clearance eventually led to Jonathan Woodgate heading the ball out to Aaron Lennon, watched by England's manager, Fabio Capello. He ran at Ashley Cole. For once Lennon's delivery was clever and precise as he pulled his cross back for Modric to shoot low and powerfully and beyond Cech for only his fourth goal of a burgeoning season.
Hiddink talked of Chelsea's failure "in the kitchen" to put out Spurs' fire and Modric, in almost a carbon copy of the goal, threatened to add a second when Keane's superb cross-field pass instigated another attack.
Chelsea had to respond. On came Ricardo Quaresma, for the defensive Juliano Belletti, and they poured forward. Ledley King brilliantly blocked Anelka, Gomes parried Drogba's low shot and then the Brazilian made his two outstanding saves to preserve an outstanding victory.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Keane
Match rating: 7/10