Tottenham 0-1 Chelsea (0-3 on aggregate) (Rudiger 18′)
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM — It’s not so much the defeat that will bother Tottenham Hotspur but the sheer gulf in quality evident over two semi-final legs against Chelsea as Goliath squashed David to stomp into the Carabao Cup final.
Antonio Conte mentioned it, we all knew it, but to see it play out in 180 minutes of football that produced a 3-0 aggregate score-line that still felt flattering for Spurs was vaguely unsettling.
How far have Spurs fallen since the halcyon days under Mauricio Pochettino? How high have Chelsea risen in the relatively short space of time that Thomas Tuchel has been in place as manager? Are these positions that will ever be rebalanced any time soon? It seems unlikely.
And where does this leave Harry Kane? The want-away striker is sliding towards yet another trophy-less season with Spurs. It was the main reason he wanted to leave last summer, the motivating factor as he tried so desperately hard to force a move.
Out of the Europa Conference League on a Covid technicality, out of the Carabao Cup in the last four, no chance in the Premier League. Should he move this summer, the FA Cup represents the slimmest hope that Kane can end his Spurs career with any silverware, and the last time they won that was three decades ago.
In an attempt to mitigate the deficit in quality, Spurs set up with a back five, at home, but even that seemed a strange approach to finding at least three goals. You suspect Conte was intending to keep it tight, nick a goal, throw some cement into a two-legged semi-final that was slipping through their fingers even before the game kicked off.
Admittedly it did have the feel of a lives-on-the-line performance in the opening exchanges that were virtually all one-way from Chelsea. Japhet Tanganga diving to head clear, Giovani Lo Celso hurtling back from supporting Kane to slide and block an effort from Malang Sarr.
But then Chelsea got the early goal they needed. And it seemed to matter little how many defenders they had on the pitch when Antonio Rudiger sprinted into their penalty box to meet a corner. Four, maybe five, Spurs players surrounded the Chelsea defender, spinning in Rudiger’s orbit but failing to remember they needed to get something in the way of him meeting Mason Mount’s delivery to make it harder to score.
Pierluigi Gollini, a surprise inclusion in goal instead of captain Hugo Lloris, came anyway and should’ve easily punched the ball clear. But he made a mess of the timing, looked as though he didn’t know if he was at a work event or a party or the edge of his own six-yard box, and the ball bounced off Rudiger’s head and floated in via the crossbar.
Gollini was a hot topic when the team sheets were announced and momentarily appeared to rise to the occasion when he pulled off a smart early save from Romelu Lukaku. A ball over the top from Rudiger, Lukaku held off Ben Davies in the way a father playfully keeps their child at arm’s length during a kickabout in the garden then shot low, but Gollini spread his limbs to save.
Then catastrophe for Tottenham’s stand-in. You perhaps would’ve expected Spurs, at this point requiring three goals to take the tie to extra and at least four to win it, to switch it up, throw caution to the wind, just go for it. And in an ever-evolving game, playing lots of defenders can produce attacking football of sorts. Tuchel is master of it. That Rudiger’s header was the 19th Chelsea goal scored by a defender this season shows how it can be done. But Spurs require far more work.
Clearly, Chelsea are the more expensively-assembled squad, but Pochettino showed it can be done, dragging Spurs to realistic Premier League title chases and a Champions League final with Herculean effort. Perhaps that is what it will take from Conte. It’s still early days.
At least referee Andre Marriner was determined to inject some hope into the Spurs supporters who had hung around with two seriously dodgy penalty calls. For the first Rudiger slid in on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, at worst caught him outside the penalty area, if at all. Marriner pointed to the spot, before the VAR awarded a free kick.
The next one was even worse, Kepa Arrizabalaga cleanly sliding in on Lucas Moura. Who knows what Marriner was looking at this time, but he awarded a penalty again, only for the VAR guys to whisper gently in his ear that maybe, just maybe, he wanted to take a look at that one again.
Not even the referee could help Spurs salvage anything from this one.