It probably says a lot about Chelsea’s decline this season that Tottenham Hotspur will be disappointed they could not make the most harrowing season of the Abramovich era even more of an ordeal.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team have now gone 13 matches unbeaten, their best run since a 14-game stretch from November 1984 to March 1985 with Peter Shreeves as manager and Ossie Ardiles flitting around in midfield, but they did not have the wit or creativity to add to Chelsea’s troubles on the day José Mourinho decided Diego Costa was no longer worthy of a place in his team.
Mourinho’s decision to leave Costa on the bench certainly jarred with his claim they had resolved their argument during the game against Maccabi Tel Aviv last Tuesday. If there were “kisses and cuddles”, as the Chelsea manager said, it was followed by the cold shoulder here. When Mourinho made his substitutions it was Kenedy and Ruben Loftus-Cheek who were instructed to come to the touchline and, for Costa, it was not far off a public humiliation given that Chelsea did not have another fit or available striker in the squad.
Instead, Eden Hazard was given the leading role and Chelsea can be encouraged by the way they subdued a Spurs team who had scored at least three times in three of their last four matches at White Hart Lane. Chelsea still have not managed back-to-back league wins this season but they did gradually emerge as the more likely winners and with John Terry injured, can feel relatively satisfied about limiting Spurs to only a couple of decent chances in the first half and virtually nothing after the interval. This was Chelsea’s first clean sheet away from Stamford Bridge in the league this season and that at least seems like a start. “The best Chelsea this season,” Mourinho said. “I think we have a team again.”
As well as reflecting badly on Costa, a statement like that speaks volumes about how they have played before this point because it was still alarming to see the number of times a midfielder with Cesc Fàbregas’s gifts misplaced passes that would once have been routine. Nemanja Matic is still not influencing the games in the manner of old and though Hazard showed glimpses of last season’s form and was acclaimed by his manager as “phenomenal”, it was probably unfair to expect him to take on Costa’s role seamlessly.
Hugo Lloris kept out his volleyed effort with a splendid save midway through the second half but Hazard’s misplaced header after Oscar’s cross had set up the outstanding chance of the opening 45 minutes exposed the obvious flaw of using a wide player as a centre-forward. Willian helped to give Chelsea’s attack some energy and directness, with Pedro and Oscar buzzing around in support, but the tactic of not playing with an orthodox striker worked only sporadically.
Whatever is eating away at Costa, Chelsea will be a much more rounded team when, or if, manager and player can sort out what has been going wrong and find a way to fix it – and the player glowering on the bench, arms folded, collar turned high, did not give the impression that he had taken it well.
Mourinho said it was not an issue that Costa did not take part in the warm-up and he might also have pointed out that another of his substitutes, Mikel John Obi, chose not to go out. It was strange, though, that when Costa did appear from the tunnel he was not even wearing his boots. He barely went through the motions when he was asked to warm up and when it became obvious he would not be playing a single minute he returned to his seat, pulled his bib over his head and tossed it over his shoulder, landing not a great distance from Mourinho’s seat. “If he wants to hurt me, it’s not with a bib,” a smiling Mourinho said afterwards, adding that he was “not expecting a player to be on the bench jumping and singing”. A difficult day for Costa was completed by Mourinho’s eulogy about how well the team had played without a natural front-man.
Tottenham had a more conventional formation with Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min operating either side of Harry Kane. They started off as the more dangerous team but their passing was disappointing and it was tempting to think Thursday’s trip to Azerbaijan to play Qarabag in the Europa League had dulled their senses.
The home side tailed off badly in the second half and did not move the ball well enough to get behind the visitors’ defence. “My players are heroes,” Pochettino countered. “Their effort was unbelievable after a difficult week.”
Spurs must have been grateful it was Hazard, rather than Costa, with the headed opportunity to open the scoring but they also had a similar chance in the first half when Kane’s right-wing cross deserved better than Son tamely heading the ball straight at Asmir Begovic. After that, however, there was not a great deal for Chelsea’s goalkeeper to do and Pochettino, as he is sometimes inclined, was stretching the truth when he said his side deserved more than a draw.