Just under a year ago, Chelsea singlehandedly won the league for Leicester City and simultaneously halted Tottenham’s title ‘charge’, if we can call it that, in doing so. Of course, Leicester had done all the hard work beforehand, but nothing was stopping Chelsea, who finished the season in 10th place, turning up the heat on their rivals. The whole fracas was a mess; Tottenham came out of the game looking as ugly as Chelsea have been for the past decade. That was something Spurs fans never wanted to see again.
As Eden Hazard put in a performance for the first time all season, curled one past Lloris and secured a 2-goal comeback in what is now coined ‘The Battle of the Bridge’, almost every player to a name joined the Belgian in overzealous and obsessive celebration in front of the away fans. Taunting was Chelsea’s primary goal once the title had gone. In that game, Tottenham infamously lost their heads and all that had been earned that season collapsed in one stadium.
Truthfully, the title had been lost well before that game and Leicester were undeniably worthy champions, but Chelsea did all they could to be stay relevant in a season that realistically, they would have been served better to stay quiet in. But then, that’s rivalries for you. You can’t keep a super-club with infinite funds quiet and modest, that’s not how football works. Tottenham have dined out on a victories over Arsenal for years, despite not having finished above them in the Wenger era. It’s a similar sort of pattern, but when the roles were reversed, Pochettino’s players did not respond like a serious challenger would.
That game must surely have been the sorest blow in his tenure. The players, obviously disheartened by that 90 mins, crumbled and succumbed to the pressure of Arsenal behind them and Tottenham failed to recover. It had been a brilliant season on the whole, but Chelsea had rained on Spurs’ ‘welcome back to competiveness’ parade.
You’d have forgiven White Hart Lane goers for thinking that season may have been a flash in the pan, but this year has surpassed that already. With the regular elites such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Man Utd all competitive again, it is that bit more impressive that Spurs still sit comfortably in second. The difference? Last season was riddled with naivety; Harry Kane posted pictures of lions on Instagram to signal their title hopes, only for them to come crashing down. Pochettino has made comments about the footballing world being against them last time out, but I’m not so sure. Spurs created their own sense of optimism but this time, they’re a much more professional, mature outfit. Nobody can do a ‘Chelsea’ on them again. If they lost out on the title again, there might be some tenderness behind the scenes, but the club won’t be humiliated on the big stage again.
Chelsea are well set for the title this year; until recently they have shown virtually no signs of weakness and brushed aside almost every opponent with seeming simplicity. Antonio Conte is doing his best to play mind games and jab back as Tottenham take this round, but it’s going to take an unlikely knockout for Pochettino to become a champion. Is revenge a mission for Tottenham this year? The Argentinian has certainly hinted at it, but it won’t be the driving factor behind winning every game from now until the end of the season. Calling Chelsea ‘artificial’ was actually wildly out of character for Pochettino, but in light of Conte’s recent words, it’s more a case of levelling the scores.
Spurs have no control over their fate this season. They’ve lost one and won one against Chelsea and will not play them again in the competition, but this weekend’s FA Cup semi represents one last opportunity to rustle some more Chelsea feathers. No longer will Spurs be drawn into petty battles. If Costa, Fabregas et al want that sort of game, I’d be particularly surprised if Dier, Dembele, the culprits of last season’s bump, would be at all interested.
It’s all about Tottenham for Tottenham this season. That’s maturity in football: not caring about what is happening beside you, but focusing all of your attention on yourself. It’s exactly the trait that makes the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic some of the best players there have been. If Spurs are victorious on Saturday, I expect no gloating or taunting on par to Chelsea’s behaviour last season.
If they win, it’s because they want silverware to match up with what has been a meteoric rise under Pochettino. ‘The Battle of the Bridge’ has been a necessary maturing process, and while it might do something to motivate the players ahead of the game, there are certainly more important variables.