Courage and tenacity might not be the traditional characteristics of Tottenham Hotspur but they showed gallons of both at Stamford Bridge. After fighting back twice to draw 2-2 with Chelsea, qualification for the Champions League is no longer in Spurs’ hands. With two games left they are relying on mistakes from Chelsea or – more likely – Arsenal to finish in the top four.
The likelihood is that Spurs will not make it. But for them still to be close, even after a night when Gareth Bale was quiet, and after four months without Sandro, their best midfielder, shows there is something beyond the usual fragility at White Hart Lane.
This Tottenham team, it seemed for much of the game, are running out of legs. They do not have the players Chelsea have, and so have to match them in other ways. The fact that they are still just three points behind third is to their immense credit.
To look at the benches beforehand was to notice the difference. Chelsea had the vast experience of John Terry and Frank Lampard, and the explosive quality of Victor Moses and Demba Ba. Spurs had Gylfi Sigurdsson, not a superstar, but a player with the talent and character to turn games, as he showed 10 minutes from the end.
On the pitch, Chelsea had two of the season’s outstanding players in Juan Mata and David Luiz, and two of the league’s most thrilling talents, in Eden Hazard and Oscar. Between the four of them they created enough chances for Chelsea to win by a distance. Spurs played less well – few of their players looked particularly sharp – but with enough spirit to snatch a point.
This was truest and most relevant in midfield, where Andre Villas-Boas had a rather difficult job finding a way to stop his glamorous opponents, without Sandro or the injured Mousa Dembélé. He chose a midfield three of Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone and Lewis Holtby. Parker had completed none of his last four games, last playing 90 minutes over one month ago, and he looked drained and heavy-legged all evening.
Huddlestone, making just his ninth league start of the season, has added some more imagination to Spurs recently but he is not the fittest midfielder in England. And Holtby, eager willing and spiky, is still clearly adjusting to Premier League football, occasionally surprised by the arrival of an opposition midfielder from behind him to steal the ball.
The longer this season has gone on, the clearer it has been how much Spurs missed Sandro. Villas-Boas has always said that the Brazilian international is the league’s best at recovering the ball, and they have desperately lacked his ruthlessness, his controlled aggression and his athleticism since his knee injury at Loftus Road in January.
Tonight, as Chelsea’s Brazilians teased Spurs, they could have done with their own. They did not even have Dembélé either, a more attacking midfielder but a very good athlete and one not averse to some physical contact where necessary.
Spurs’ weary legs struggled to cope with Chelsea’s brisker movement. Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were drifting into areas Sandro usually considers his personal property, skipping past Huddlestone and creating chances.
There was never enough of a challenge and soon enough Chelsea were ahead. Parker was too slow to react to Oscar’s meeting Gary Cahill’s flick at the far post.
It took a rare counter-attack and a brilliant finish from Emmanuel Adebayor to send Tottenham level but soon enough Chelsea were back ahead, the goal coming through that same empty space. Ramires started a move in his own half and darted forward. Torres had the ball on the right, Oscar and Ramires both broke past their absent markers, Torres picked out the latter and he stabbed the ball past Hugo Lloris. Sandro could only look on from the Spurs bench.
It needed some good fortune to keep the game alive into the second half. Another unchallenged break early in the second half ended with Ramires slipping when he could have made it 3-1.
For much of this season Spurs have stayed in games and relied on Bale to make the difference, but tonight he was just a mortal, shifting from left wing to right but without much of an impact. But Spurs – whose competitive character is not in doubt – continued to push and push. Villas-Boas threw on Sigurdsson and Dempsey, the best that he had, and Spurs on empty legs started to force corners and create pressure.
Hanging on in the game, Spurs were going to need luck and they got it. With 10 minutes left, Benoît Assou-Ekotto clipped a left-wing cross down to Adebayor, who was offside. But play went on, Adebayor back-heeled the ball to Sigurdsson and the substitute finished into the far bottom corner. On the balance of play it might not have been deserved but on the balance of character it certainly was.