As the title suggests, hope will be high that Chelsea will once again triumph over Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night. While none of us wish for the drama over the
4-3 victory from 1994 that the song “Pride of London” (and where I got the title for this article from) extols, a victory over Spurs this time will give the Blues solidity in third place and make it very likely that either Spurs or Arsenal will miss out on the Champions League. The task for Spurs is monumental. The last time Spurs won a match at Stamford Bridge, Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Nonetheless, Spurs have put up more of a fight against us at White Hart Lane, while they can boast a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge in 2007 in the FA Cup.
Both teams should be close to full strength, and that might be more important to Spurs who saw both Aaron Lennon and Mousa Dembele limp off with hamstring problems in the match against Southampton. Both may feature, but the question will be what part they play.
Everything Spurs do starts and stops with Gareth Bale.
The numbers don’t lie — 20 goals in the league, 8 of which were the match-winning goal. That includes the goal against Southampton that came in the 86th minute that rescued Tottenham’s blushes in a match that Southampton easily could have won.
We met the equivalent of a one-man team just a few weeks ago in Liverpool, only for that one man, Luis Suarez, to take a bite out of us both literally and figuratively. Chelsea cannot let the same happen with Bale, but there is a main difference.
First thing, Andre Villas-Boas has been unable to resist the urge to play Bale in central areas where the belief is that he can impact the game more. He generally does this whenever Lennon doesn’t feature, but he’s been playing him there more easily. If Villas-Boas chooses to play him there, it makes Bale much easier to play against. One of the weaknesses in Bale’s game is that he doesn’t quite have the base or the trickery to play with his back to goal. When he occupies the center, he inevitably has to receive the ball with a defender on his back and has to turn him. We’ve seen the abilities of Eden Hazard, with his low center of gravity, and Juan Mata, with his ability to pass quickly and move into space, be able to handle that.
However, in Bale’s case, it deprives him of his main skill, which is his ability to face up a defender, isolate him, and beat him either inside or outside. When he’s in the center, he’s asked to handle one player marking him and a defender behind, making it harder for him to find space. If he plays centrally, he’s much less effective than he is on the wing because he can’t face up to a defender as easily in the center of the park. That’s where you must force him to drift because he isn’t nearly as effective centrally. Manchester City showed that before Villas-Boas’ substitutions brought him to the wide right.
Bale might be the main match winner, but don’t sleep on Jermain Defoe.
In a team that lacks match winners besides Bale, Defoe is the one man that’s just as capable of scoring as Bale. The question with Defoe is that as a lone man, especially if Bale is his supporting striker, he lacks the physicality required to deal with two center backs. However, if you play on the counter, and Spurs very well might do that, he’s very good at finding space and he’s a great finisher.
Defoe becomes even more important because their other striker, Emmanuel Adebayor, has had an abysmal season by anyone’s standards and has really offered nothing but a big man that occupies spaces. If Bale and Defoe don’t score goals, Tottenham’s only other method of scoring is via set pieces, which is one of our strengths since the appointment of Benitez.
Don’t underestimate what Aaron Lennon means to the team.
I touched a bit on Aaron Lennon earlier when I mentioned that Bale plays centrally a lot more often when Lennon isn’t fit. The main reason is that Villas-Boas has preferred to play Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson in the wide areas because they don’t carry quite the threat. However, neither brings the same pace that Lennon does, and neither really gives them the same width.
Lennon is just as important to the system as Bale, because with Lennon’s pace, he forces the left back to have to watch him getting in behind which gives Bale more as he floats through the middle and left because it forces the left back and left sided midfielder/winger to have to watch Lennon and takes a man from the center. The other main factor is that Lennon also has that pace to run by a defender if he gets caught on the wrong side, as Arsenal found out, meaning that when the break on the counter, both Bale and Lennon are capable of simply running past you.
Quite simply, he adds a wide dimension and pace threat that neither Dempsey or Sigurdsson have effectively been able to replace.
Mata, Oscar, and Hazard must attack Scott Parker.
The one main difference in this side from our first meeting is the absence of Sandro. In his place is the former Chelsea player, Scott Parker. The biggest key is that with Parker, it limits the effectiveness of Dembele. With Sandro in the midfield, Dembele had a bit more freedom to roam around and get forward because Sandro was solid enough in the tackle to play in that holding role.
However, with Scott Parker, he lacks the quickness of players like the three we’ll play behind the striker, meaning that Dembele has to curb his forward runs and sit deeper and help. It hurts Tottenham because Dembele is entirely capable of being their equivalent of Yaya Toure, a midfielder who can win tackles but can attack when needed. Since Parker isn’t quite capable of holding the midfield alone, Dembele will be asked to play deeper, if he features from the start with his bad hamstring.
Spurs back line is a bit suspect, especially at fullback.
While Tottenham have found a decent center back partnership in Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen, it’s also made their fullback positions much weaker. While Kyle Walker is great coming forward, he’s also a liability defensively, as shown by his ridiculous attempt to dribble out of his own half in the first meeting, only to be robbed by Mata.
On the other side, the choice is between a converted right back, Kyle Naughton, or the mercurial Benoit Assou-Ekotto. My money is on Assou-Ekotto starting at left back, which is a liability because you’re not sure where his head is. One minute, he wins every tackle, defends well, and looks switched on. The next minute, he tries to nutmeg someone in his own half just to show he’s clever, and you wonder what he’s thinking because if it doesn’t work, he’s played a man in on goal.
If I’m Rafa Benitez, I’m thinking that any combination of Mata, Oscar, Hazard, or Victor Moses can exploit the defensive line and the midfield whether by width or by overt trickery and vision.