The Soccer Desk

Chelsea-Tottenham Review: Spurs, Mata, Torres

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Three quick thoughts about the 1-1 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea on Saturday:

First: Tottenham is good.

No team in the history of the Premier League has ever won the title without having finished in the top three the season before, with 17 of the 21 English top-flight champions crowned during that era claiming the trophy after being runners up the previous year.

Arsenal 1997-98, Manchester United 2002-03, Chelsea 2009-10 and Manchester City 2011-12 are the four clubs to storm their way to the top after finishing third in the preceding campaign – so the odds of Spurs making the jump from Europa League entrants to title-winners are more unlikely than their inclusion in the newly coined Big Six might suggest.

There is a difference, as demonstrated by Arsenal circa 2009-11, between being title-contenders and having the descriptor ‘genuine’ affixed ahead of it.

So until an unproven side like Spurs has weathered the hard slough that is winter in the Premier League and had its meddle tested by the crucible of the meaningful football in March and beyond, they will remain an unknown commodity at the most elite level.

But Tottenham are title-contenders, make no mistake about that.

Jan Vertonghen may be the best defender in the league and Moussa Dembélé is just one of an embarrassment of riches available in the midfield to André Villas-Boas – which is not to mention the depth and quality Tottenham added to their club with the additions of Palinho, Roberto Soldado, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela as they spent ahead of the inevitable windfall brought about by the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid this past summer.

That Soldado hasn’t been entirely convincing as a lone striker in Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 formation raises questions about how well they can truly challenge for the title. But given the aforementioned quality and depth they now possess, Tottenham are certainly causing discomfort for the teams accustomed to finishing above them.

The second observation from the game: Juan Mata is very good.

Despite the fact the Mata doesn’t appear to fit into Jose Mourinho’s plans (and that I spent my column in advance of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham laying out my case against the diminutive Spaniard), it still came as a bit of a surprise not to see the midfield maestro in the starting lineup at White Hart Lane on Saturday given the effectiveness the attacking trio of Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar displayed in the corresponding fixture last year (a 4-2 Chelsea victory).

Regardless, Mourinho threw on Mata at the start of the second half and it was this change that was the impetus for Chelsea’s resurgence in the second half after the Blues had been thoroughly outplayed – and were fortunate to only be trailing 1-0 – after the opening 45 minutes.

It was Mata who combined nicely with Ramires in the middle of the park before the Brazilian was fouled, and it was Mata who practically placed the ensuing free kick onto the head of an unmarked John Terry (courtesy of a rare error from Vertonghen), which the Chelsea captain duly dispatched past Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris for the equalizer.

Mata did well to wrestle control of the midfield away from Tottenham in the second half until Mike Dean’s poor decision to send off Fernando Torres with 10 minutes to play.

But it has to be said that Mata was at his most influential during open play when he was helping to orchestrate moves from a less advanced role more akin to what Paul Scholes excelled at with Manchester United than the No. 10 role he is purportedly trying to regain from Oscar.

Third: No matter how promising Torres might look during a given spell, the deservedly-maligned striker will never regain his Liverpool form that had already faded by the time Roman Abramovich splashed out £50 mil. in possibly the worst panic buy in the history of the league.

Torres had indeed looked bright in the second half and did well to set up André Schürrle for a breakaway the German really should have converted into a 2-1 lead for Chelsea.

But all the while the Spain international was indulging himself in a war of words (and apparent scratches) with Vertonghen during his pitched battle with the Belgian that eventually led to his sending off in the 81st minute.

That Torres was exonerated by video replays that showed the Spurs defender is as accomplished at embellishment as the former 30-goal scorer with whom he did not clash heads is beside the point.

Regardless of intent or misfortune, he has shown an inability to help the Blues beyond meaningless goals in the League Cup or Europa league.

If Chelsea are truly to challenge for the title, there can be little doubt that Torres won’t play a meaningful part in it.

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