A young, exciting team led by a relatively inexperienced manager still finding his feet at the top level take on league leaders buying into Jose Mourinho’s methods. Wait, are we sure Chelsea and Tottenham have this the right way round? Should we check that Roman Abramovich and Daniel Levy are aware of what’s going on? What do you mean they know?
It’s been a weird old season, so weird that you may have forgotten that these two have already played each other once before in the Carabao Cup. You know, the game where Mourinho had to drag Eric Dier out of the loo because the match was still going on.
Ahead of that encounter, the narrative would have read more along the lines of ‘naive and spineless youngsters head to team with no idea with what they’re doing in totally unnecessary cup fixture that will teach us nothing’. How times change.
It seemed like the Premier League was Liverpool’s to retain at a canter back in September, but Spurs and Chelsea have emerged as two of the Reds’ biggest threats in what could be the most open title race in years. Mourinho’s Lilywhites have quickly grown a reputation as one of England’s most streetwise teams, while Frank Lampard’s Blues have outgrown their soft underbelly and returned to their ruthless, free-scoring ways they showed only in glimpses last year.
If Tottenham are to break their duck for silverware – and even become champions for the first time in 60 years – then there may not be a better time to make a push. Most of their key players are in their prime, have accumulated a lot of experience in title races or European runs, their rivals are faltering. And probably most importantly, Spurs play like a Mourinho title contender.
Ironically, the Blues have a squad profile reminiscent of those Spurs had under Mauricio Pochettino and were Chelsea’s biggest threat. Hakim Ziyech is a flashier Christian Eriksen, Kai Havertz is similar to Dele Alli, Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner have a bit of Son Heung-min about them. At a stretch, there are least slight comparisons to be made with Tammy Abraham (Harry Kane), N’Golo Kante (Victor Wanyama), and Mateo Kovacic (Mousa Dembele).
Much of Chelsea’s side still have room to grow, to gain the experience and the scars from defeats and failures, faith in a long-term vision, while Tottenham have been through all that already and are pretty much in ‘win now’ mode. It’s only fair that the pressure falls onto Spurs rather than their hosts – if you want to win big, you need to deal with big expectations – and it makes this an even bigger fixture than the Manchester City one they admirably navigated last weekend.
While Lampard might be under the cosh if he doesn’t show signs of progress this season – and Chelsea do have veterans in Thiago Silva, Cesar Azpilicueta and Kante to help with any immediate challenge – the club are well placed to return to the top table in the long run after a throwback Abramovich transfer window (the ‘Galactiblues’, the ‘Bluacticos’, something like that).
Lampard at least looks to have the trust and confidence of his players again, and shoring up the defence has helped to no end. Edouard Mendy hasn’t been world beating, but he’s nowhere near as holographic as Kepa Arrizabalaga, and the increase in confidence in the rest of the team is notable – Chelsea have kept seven clean sheets and conceded just three goals in ten games with the Senegalese stopper in the side.
Their next challenge is to keep out a Mourinho team that looks his most Mourinho-y since he won the league with Chelsea in 2015. The Spurs sides they so easily dispatched of last season weren’t in the true image of the Portuguese coach, and it’d be kind to call them a cheap imitation – even the side the Blues faced in September was one that had pre-season friendly vibes. This will be Lampard and Mourinho’s first meeting where both sides can say they’re 100% ready.
Doesn’t mean the loser won’t make excuses, though. All part of the petty fun this storied fixture – and newfound managerial rivalry – thrives on.