It was not how Antonio Conte had envisaged his return to Chelsea, the club where he enjoyed such success for two seasons before everything went bang, his departure in 2018 marked by acrimony and a long-running legal case.
Results had generally been impressive for Conte on the domestic front since his arrival at Tottenham in early November but this was quite the unravelling, the only consolation being that his team are still just about alive ahead of the second leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final.
Spurs’s defending in the first half was almost impossibly bad. If Kai Havertz’s early opener owed much to their looseness, the second was entirely down to it, Japhet Tanganga’s attempted clearing header from a Hakim Ziyech free-kick smacking into Ben Davies and flying in for a darkly comic own goal. There was no Chelsea player in the vicinity. It was not the only time that Spurs were a danger to themselves, players getting in the way of each other, coherence sorely lacking.
Almost implausibly, they came close to burgling a late goal when the substitute, Bryan Gil, showed off his quick feet and cut back for another replacement, Giovani Lo Celso, whose shot was pushed out by Kepa Arrizabalaga. Tanguy Ndombele, who also came off the bench, could not force home the rebound. It was difficult to remember Spurs doing much else as an attacking force. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were entirely peripheral.
The story was one of Chelsea profligacy, with Romelu Lukaku among the guilty. Thomas Tuchel had restored the striker to the starting XI after the fallout from his controversial interview and he struggled to make an impression; his finishing was rushed, his moves a little predictable. It was almost as if he was trying too hard at times.
Lukaku, who was given a muted reception by the home support, was not the only Chelsea player to fluff his lines in front of goal. Havertz, the otherwise excellent Ziyech and the substitute, Timo Werner, all missed gilt-edged chances.
Conte, who was without Eric Dier because of a positive Covid test, would pour out his heart afterwards, talking about how far Spurs have come to lag behind teams like Chelsea. They were a long way off them after the first whistle blew, the drive belonging to the hosts, and Havertz’s goal came after Tanganga had played Emerson Royal into trouble. Marcos Alonso stepped up to win the ball, played Havertz in behind Tanganga and the finish went in off Davinson Sánchez. Havertz dislocated his finger in the act of scoring – in gruesome fashion – and, although he made it to half-time, he did not reappear thereafter.
Tuchel had been able to call upon only four defenders – Thiago Silva was the latest absentee with Covid (the virus also ruled out a midfielder, N’Golo Kanté) – which is a bit of a problem when his preferred system involves playing a five. He switched with the minimum of fuss to 4-2-2-2.
It was Spurs in their regular 3-4-2-1 formation who looked like strangers during the first half, which was summed up for them by the own goal. Conte stood motionless on the touchline, silently stewing, because it had not been a lone moment of slapstick defending from his team. Havertz had earlier blown a clear chance for 2-0 after Pierre-Emile Højbjerg hit Oliver Skipp with a clearance and the ball broke for the Chelsea attacker.
It was no exaggeration to say that the tie could have been over at half-time. Chelsea had pot shots from around the area, with Mason Mount seeing two charged down but it should have been 3-0 in the 41st minute when Ziyech drifted over a cross for Lukaku, who had got in front of Sánchez. The Belgian rose and glanced a header just past the post.
Conte was spoilt for choice in terms of who to remove at the interval but limited himself to only one change – hooking Matt Doherty, who had laboured out of position at left wing-back, and introducing Ndombele. The eye-catching move was the switch to 4-2-3-1. Tuchel was not the only manager to break his religion of three centre-halves.
Spurs were a bit better. They took up higher starting positions, which they had failed to do in the first half when Højbjerg and Skipp were worried about Ziyech and Mount getting in between the lines and the team sunk back. They pieced together a few passing moves and Kane extended Arrizabalaga from a free-kick after Ndombele had been fouled by Malang Sarr.
But it was Chelsea who continued to look the more threatening. Ziyech sidefooted straight at Lloris after a nice Lukaku pass while he would later volley high; Werner curled past the far post and also watched Lloris save his lob after Ziyech’s defence-splitting pass. And, at the very last, Lukaku shot weakly at Lloris.