Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham players were serenaded with a painfully familiar refrain as the misery and chaos that had been released by Chelsea’s victory was turned on them at deafening volume.
“Tottenham Hotspur – it’s happened again” thundered from all four sides of Stamford Bridge after Kieran Trippier’s late comedy own goal secured a 2-0 win for Chelsea, which lifted the thunder clouds over the club and manager Maurizio Sarri.
And it had happened again.
The title hopes, which were a long-shot but still real, were snuffed out on the enemy territory where they had suffered a similar fate in 2016, when an incendiary 2-2 draw containing 12 yellow cards secured the Premier League for Leicester City.
Spurs will now face, in a title context at least, the usual hackneyed allegations of “bottlers” and “Spursy” – insults to a team and manager who have, until now at least, kept up with the searing pace set by Liverpool and Manchester City. It has been an achievement to stay on their shoulders for so long.
- Title now impossible, says Pochettino
This is a team with one foot in the last eight of the Champions League as they take a 3-0 lead to Borussia Dortmund, and on course for a top four place again – so questions about their courage and character must fall on stony ground.
Here, however, against a reinvigorated Chelsea, there was no doubt Spurs looked tired, uninspired – and the body language at the final whistle screamed that they now know the game is up as they stand nine points behind Liverpool with 10 games left.
Harry Kane, the talisman, looked ring-rusty after his long injury absence; Son Heung-min could not perform the late rescue acts he has specialised in recently; Christian Eriksen was on the margins, and the power of Jan Vertonghen was missed.
Pochettino, who did not enter the markets in the summer or January, has managed his resources brilliantly, but this was a night when he needed a razor-sharp Kane and it seemed his lay-off means the full cutting edge is not yet restored.
Spurs have escaped recently as they showed resilience to win late against Watford and Newcastle United, and survive a scare against Leicester City.
No reprieve this time – and Spurs did not deserve one. They did not muster a shot on target, a fair reflection of their lack of punch and creativity.
And their pain will have only increased as it was all played out to the soundtrack of Chelsea’s fans once again revelling in Spurs’ anguish.
It will be a huge source of frustration to Pochettino and Spurs that they have come up short in the title race once more. The Argentine may not regard the FA Cup and Carabao Cup as the major prizes but he is desperate to make the breakthrough in the Premier League and Champions League.
Spurs still have the biggest trophy of all, the Champions League, in sharp focus but they must find freshness in their legs quickly and hope for the swift return of the much-missed Dele Alli.
And now, after wins for Arsenal, Manchester United and of course Chelsea, Spurs need a glance over their shoulders at those coming up behind them in the league.
Spurs meet Arsenal in the north London derby at Wembley on Saturday knowing a win for Unai Emery’s side will put the Gunners just a point behind their arch-rivals, while Manchester United are on a surge after winning again at Crystal Palace.
It certainly adds another helping of spice to the Wembley game, with Arsenal and their fans suddenly believing they can haul in the old enemy after it looked like they were out of sight.
In the space of four days, Spurs’ title aspirations have been left in tatters as the mood around Chelsea, while not exactly a carnival, represented a marked shift.
Sarri was on the rack after his own fans turned on him during the FA Cup fourth-round loss at home to Manchester United, while Kepa Arrizabalaga’s one-man rebellion at Wembley overshadowed so much good work by manager and players in the Carabao Cup final loss to Manchester City.
In the background lurked memories of the 4-0 defeat at Bournemouth and the 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City. The smart money was on Sarri not surviving another mishap here.
Sarri, correctly, punished Arrizabalaga by replacing him with Willy Caballero, and Chelsea’s response was exactly what he (and arguably more importantly Chelsea’s top brass) will have demanded and needed after the carnage of recent times.
And it all went right. Sarri hardly cut a relaxed figure as he paced his technical area, but this win and performance means he can rest easy for at least a few more days as Chelsea manager.
Spurs, in contrast, drove out of west London knowing the title must wait at least another year, and the fight is now about the top four and the Champions League.