in their temporary home, with a turned page towards a bigger future, a whopping crowd and an abundance of flag-waving, drum-beating enthusiasm was not enough to change Tottenham’s Wembley tune. In the 88th minute of their brave new world the sight of Marco Alonso sprinting towards the crowing blue noise in the visitors’ corner prompted a not untypical sight in contemporary football – the signal for a flow of fear-the-worst fans to head for the exits to beat the queues.
Mauricio Pochettino may feel that talk of curses is overblown, unhelpful and not very realistic over the course of a proper season in situ rather than the occasional European drop-ins of the last campaign, but there was no denying how dispiriting it was to begin life as Wembley tenants with a pooped party. A blunt edge, and misjudged defensive moments, helped Chelsea to secure all the points. The decisive moment came when Victor Wanyama (in losing possession) and Hugo Lloris (in allowing the ball to squirm past his body) made avoidable mistakes to turn what would have been a hard-earned comeback draw into a rueful defeat.
“I understand that we need to talk, everyone needs to talk. But I think the Wembley effect is not the reason we lost the game,” Pochettino insisted. “It’s not fair to blame Wembley. For me, Wembley is one of the best places in the world to play football.” That was a sentiment that Chelsea were eager to share and relish.
Of more significance than the Wembley effect was the bare fact that Tottenham lost a home Premier League game for the first time in 15 months. Their record at White Hart Lane had been the bedrock of their title challenge last season, with a phenomenal unbeaten points haul – 17 wins and two draws yielding 53 points out of a possible 57. The likelihood of building that kind of momentum at Wembley was always going to be slim, but finding some kind of positive is needed as quickly as possible. Maintaining any kind of challenge is plainly difficult without the foundation of strength at home.
The club did make an effort to help the players and fans settle in. They dressed up the ground with familiar colours and slogans, splashes of navy and white and giant cockerels. The pre-match flag-waving created a crescendo of expectancy. That kind of occasion-building – with props provided – is usually associated with a cup or European game but the club were doing their best to kick off their league campaign with a sense of the showpiece.
The acoustics lent themselves to some ear-splitting chants and a drum was miked up to the PA system as an atmosphere enhancer. The vibes dipped, though, in the 24th minute, when Alonso’s sumptuous free‑kick arced over the wall and into the corner of Lloris’s net. The section of visiting fans soon made themselves heard by reminding their hosts that they were champions of England.
Pochettino’s previously excellent unblemished record in league derbies on Tottenham’s own patch was at risk and his team rallied to recover their footing. They worked hard to find the blend of physical power and penetrative football and created plenty of chances to equalise. Harry Kane alone had multiple efforts and will wonder how none of them went in.
Perhaps the most galling thing was that Tottenham did manufacture a moment that briefly looked like salvation of sorts before it all unravelled again. The equaliser came via one of those whipped, inswinging free-kicks that Christian Eriksen produces so skilfully. Michy Batshuayi, back to lend an extra body to the cause, conjured an instinctive flick neatly to head the ball past Thibaut Courtois.
Tottenham’s shot of relief was painfully short-lived. Alonso’s matchwinner sapped any prospect of a Wembley feelgood factor away from Spurs. They were speared by a Chelsea mission that was built on resolute defending, collective resilience, and a couple of moments of ruthlessness. For Antonio Conte it was a perfectly executed job.
That sent the vast majority of the 73,587 crowd home nursing a disappointment. Tottenham will click a lot of people through the turnstiles over the course of this season. The attendance for this match was restricted, though, as the Safety Advisory Board was concerned that unsegregated pockets would crop up if general sale tickets were openly available.
Only those who were on Tottenham’s database by 1 July, for example as a previous buyer of tickets or merchandise, could access the sale. This kind of restriction is only expected for particularly sensitive fixtures – such as Arsenal and West Ham as well as Chelsea – where a mixed crowd is considered too high risk. For this weekend’s game against Burnley full capacity is available.
The search for the win they crave goes on, too. “If we play that way we’ll win a lot of games in the future,” Pochettino said. Just one, here, on this wide patch of famous green, will go a long way to concentrating the discourse on playing matters on the pitch, not where the pitch happens to be or what weird mystical powers it might possess.