Are Chelsea about to blow this title? On yesterday's evidence, at both Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, it's certainly beginning to look as though they might. Carlo Ancelotti's side would have known before kick-off that Manchester United were back breathing down their necks but there was nothing in their performance that suggested they felt they needed to go out and win this game. In fact, they were not only outplayed by a Tottenham side who passed the ball brilliantly throughout, they were outfought too.
Chelsea did play the last 23 minutes of the game with 10 men after John Terry was sent off for a second bookable offence but even with their full complement, they only managed a handful of efforts on target over the course of the 90 minutes. It was a deeply puzzling performance, one that Ancelotti seemed to be able to shed some light on. "We conceded a lot of space in midfield in the first 15 minutes, we didn't have good pressure on the ball," he offered. "We had some chances at the start of the second half but when it went to 10 v 11, it was impossible. But we also played against a very good team. That was a factor."
And he was right, a good portion of Chelsea's malaise was down to Tottenham. A late Frank Lampard goal aside, they showed an impressive discipline in how they went about their business, just as they had in midweek against Arsenal. They have many fine footballers in their ranks but it was their appetite for victory that stood out most. Whisper it quietly but the softies from north London may be developing something of a backbone.
Although it does help when you have players of the quality of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. Both were brilliant throughout, the Welshman causing Chelsea trouble every time he got on the ball, the Croatian passing and probing with an intelligence that is rare in the rough and tumble of a Premier League midfield. Play like they have this past week and fourth place is theirs for the taking.
"We were the better team, we created all the chances," said Harry Redknapp. "It's a difficult task beating Chelsea, not too many teams manage to do that. We missed four or five fantastic chances to really kill them off. We've played well all year. One or two results haven't gone our way but that's it. We've got tough games still but if you asked me about playing Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in a row I would have taken five points. Now we have six. We have difficult games but we're in there."
Tottenham were certainly worth their 15th-minute lead, even if there were questions marks about the validity of decision by Phil Down to award a penalty for handball by John Terry. Perhaps the referee pointed to the spot because, moments earlier, he waved play on when he might have blown for a foul on Gareth Bale by John Obi Mikel inside the box. Or maybe it was because Dowd had watched Wednesday's game against Bolton and saw the Chelsea captain get away with a similar offence. No matter, Jermain Defoe slammed his kick past Petr Cech to give the home side the lead and they dominated much of the rest of the half.
The Chelsea keeper had to tip a 20-yard shot from Roman Pavlyuchenko over the bar and there were a couple of half chances for David Bentley and Younes Kaboul, before the second goal arrived on 44 minutes through the irrepressible Bale. When Pavlyuchenko played him in down the line, Bale got the ball under control, cut inside and fired a right foot shot past Cech from 18 yards.
Heurelho Gomes did produce a brilliant save to deny a Lampard volley before half-time but he was a spectator for much of the rest of the game.
After Terry was sent off on 67 minutes for a foul on Bale, Tottenham had four great chances to grab a third. Defoe, Pavlyuchenko and Bale, twice, should have done better and when Lampard poked in a Chelsea goal in injury time, they might have been made to pay. But the home side had done enough, leaving Chelsea with a lot more to do.