While Avram Grant fiddled, Chelsea's title ambitions burned. It was, quite simply, the most extraordinary game of the season so far - a conflagration of eight goals, three Tottenham comebacks and another set of bizarre tactical decisions from a Chelsea manager who just cannot get it right in the big games.
When the dust had settled after Robbie Keane's brilliant 88th-minute equaliser, Grant was left to wonder whether this was the moment that his club's title ambitions died. Manchester United are five points ahead, Chelsea's opportunity to draw level with Arsenal in second place has gone. Roman Abramovich cannot grumble about the entertainment value but he must take issue at the way Grant’s team are blowing their chances of a trophy.
This was the game that had everything. There was a sublime performance from Joe Cole, whose two goals made him the outstanding performer before Grant's decision to substitute him with Chelsea 4-3 up. And on the dark side there was an horrendous studs-up challenge from Ashley Cole before half-time that could have broke Alan Hutton's leg and was met with a terrible decision from Mike Riley who booked Cole instead of sending him off.
Against Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and, in the last two games against Spurs, Grant has failed to beat the big beasts of English football. Juande Ramos picked the same XI that beat Chelsea in last month's Carling Cup final and, by the skin of his teeth, has again frustrated Grant. At 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3 up his Chelsea team should have won this game, yet by the end even Grant's own players seemed baffled by his substitutions.
With his team 3-2 in the lead, having led 3-1, the Chelsea manager tried to close out the game in Jose Mourinho-fashion by bolstering his defence. He sent on the Brazilian defender Alex da Costa as sweeper in what seemed like a counter-move to Ramos's decision to bring on Darren Bent, a third striker. But on the pitch, Chelsea lost their shape, Didier Drogba looked to the bench in despair and Tom Huddlestone equalised. The game was in the balance again.
Then, after Joe Cole had seemingly got Grant off the hook with a brilliant second goal to put his team 4-3 in the lead, the Chelsea manager struck again. Off came Cole this time for Michael Ballack and Chelsea were caught cold once again. After a clearance struck Ricardo Carvalho's back, Keane hit a 20-yard equaliser past Carlo Cudicini and Grant must have felt the cold sweat break out on his forehead. Ramos had out-thought him.
Tiny margins for error; huge consequences. The basis of the five trophies won by Mourinho was a sure-footedness in pressurised situations. It is the hallmark of all great managers and, once again, Ramos showed he has that judgement in abundance. Grant seems to lack it. The Spurs manager made two substitutions – his key call was Bent coming on for Ledley King on 68 minutes – and he got it right.
It was telling that, at 4-4 in the very last moments of the match, Grant was lucky that Spurs did not take all three points. The excellent Dimitar Berbatov twisted into space and had a clear shot at goal that only Cudicini's desperate save stopped. Sunday at Stamford Bridge provides Grant with his shot at redemption against Arsenal, but on this evidence there is no doubt which team will win if it comes down to the manager's decisions.
Take a deep breath and go back to the start. Four minutes into the game and Drogba met John Terry's peach of a cross with a downward header past Paul Robinson. It was the Ivorian's first Premier League goal since 11 September, his first goal in any competition since the Carling Cup final.
1-1: on 12 minutes Jonathan Woodgate, who had lost Drogba for the first goal, headed home Jermaine Jenas' free-kick for the equaliser. 2-1 to Chelsea: on 19 minutes Joe Cole's throughball took a touch off Drogba before Michael Essien lifted a brilliant chip over Robinson. Then it started to get nasty.
Terry's knee caught Berbatov's head as the two tumbled in the Chelsea area. Lampard went straight through Jenas and at half-time the Spurs man was substituted for Huddlestone. Riley did not even book Lampard but his worst decision was to come. Just before half-time, Hutton moved in to control a ball by the touchline and from out of the frame came Ashley Cole, lunging, stretching and with studs raised. Had Hutton's foot been grounded when Cole connected with his leg then the injury would have been disastrous. The card was yellow but should have been red.
3-1 to Chelsea: on 52 minutes, Joe Cole took the long route around Pascal Chimbonda in the right channel before striking a low shot that cannoned off Robinson's legs and in. 3-2: six minutes later the Tottenham comeback began. Huddlestone's corner found Berbatov who flighted a header into the corner. 3-3: on 75 minutes a loose corner fell to Huddlestone who drilled in the equaliser.
The finale. 4-3: another goal from Joe Cole who burst through and struck the ball into the roof of Robinson's goal on 80 minutes and was then substituted. 4-4: Keane's riposte, White Hart Lane in raptures. In the 90th minute, Grant sent on Andrei Shevchenko but it was a bit late then to be changing a team that had already been pulled apart by its own manager.
Goals: Drogba (3) 0-1; Woodgate (12) 1-1; Essien (20) 1-2; J Cole (52) 1-3; Berbatov (61) 2-3; Huddlestone (75) 3-3; J Cole (80) 3-4; Keane (88) 4-4.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Hutton, Woodgate, King (Bent, 68), Chimbonda; Lennon, Jenas (Huddlestone, h-t), Zokora, Malbranque; Keane, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Tainio, Dawson.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cudicini; Ferreira (Shevchenko, 89), Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Makelele; J Cole (Ballack, 82), Essien, Lampard, Kalou (Alex, 71); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Wright-Phillips.
Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire).
Booked: Tottenham Keane, Huddlestone; Chelsea J Cole, A Cole.
Man of the match: J Cole.
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