Matches between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur don’t tend to need extra spice but Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte provided it in fistfuls anyway today at Stamford Bridge.
Tuchel and Conte turned the traditional handshake between opposing managers on the final whistle from a moment of sportsmanship into an arm wrestle – both earning red cards in the process – as a simmering row between the pair boiled over seconds after Harry Kane’s injury-time equaliser for the visitors.
It followed an increasingly niggly Premier League contest that also served up an absorbing tactical battle in which Tuchel and Conte repeatedly sought to outmanoeuvre one another, and from which neither emerged fully satisfied.
The touchline tension had been brewing from midway through the second half, when Tuchel appeared to take exception to Conte’s boisterous celebration of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s goal, which cancelled out Kalidou Koulibaly’s first-half opener for Chelsea.
Tuchel and Conte were booked but the feud erupted again at full-time, Conte reacting angrily when Tuchel apparently refused to let go of his hand because his rival averted his gaze.
“I thought when you shake hands you look into each other’s eyes. Antonio thought something different,” said Tuchel, who also insisted that neither Spurs goal should have stood. “It was not necessary but a lot of things were not necessary.”
Conte attempted to bat away questions about the altercation. “I don’t want to comment on the situation because it’s not the most important thing,” he said. “If there’s a problem, it’s between me and him, not everybody else.”
Still, the flashpoint provided a physical manifestation of the tactical battle that had been playing out between the usually measured German and the combustible Italian.
For the first 55 minutes Chelsea and Tuchel were firmly on top, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek drifting in from his position as an auxiliary right wing-back to provide an extra man in midfield, overwhelm the visitors and keep them pinned back.
That dominance told in the 20th minute, when centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly capitalised on sloppy marking to notch his first goal for the club with a deliberately sliced volley from fellow summer signing Marc Cucurella’s corner.
Conte wrestled back the initiative after introducing an extra forward in Richarlison and switching to a back four just before the hour mark. Instantly Spurs got up the field and Kane ought to have scored rather than drag his shot wide when through on Edouard Mendy.
Hojbjerg’s 68th-minute drive from the edge of the penalty area levelled the game and sparked furious protests from Chelsea, who had been angered by referee Anthony Taylor’s refusal to give a foul for a tackle on Kai Havertz 45 seconds earlier.
Tuchel made his move soon after by, replacing Jorginho, whose dallying on the ball had led to the goal, with Cesar Azpilicueta and moving Reece James to wing-back. Moments later James collected Raheem Sterling’s lay-off and blasted Chelsea’s second goal.
Conte responded by reverting to a back three, and it looked to have failed. But in stoppage time Spurs cranked up the pressure with a series of corners, the last of which Kane glanced across goal and inside the far post. Cue bedlam.
Once again Chelsea’s finishing proved their undoing. From 67 per cent possession and 10 shots they managed just three on target. Tottenham got five of their six on target and earned a point despite their 0.88 expected goals falling far short of the hosts’ 1.56, according to data from Sporting Risk
Conte’s side showed resilience after a poor first half, however, and the additional depth in the squad told, with Richarlison a useful nuisance. They remain without a win in eight games against the Blues but avoided a sixth consecutive defeat.
This match was billed as a test of whether Spurs might take Chelsea’s crown as the best team in London this season. The evidence was inconclusive but, as Tuchel and Conte illustrated, it promises to be a riveting fight.