It finally came. Spurs at Chelsea. The Decider. Two London heavyweights kicking off with everything on the line: a top-four spot, prestige, riches, and redemption.
The game was supposed to happen much earlier in the season, but thanks to the FA Cup and Europa League, and maybe the grace of God Himself, it had been postponed again and again. In the end, the timing was perfect. So late in the season, three points would all but guarantee a Champions League qualification for third-place Chelsea. If fifth-place Spurs pulled it off, they'd leapfrog fourth-place rivals Arsenal and control their own destiny. So, of course it ended in a draw. The best drama makes you wait.
Not that last night didn't have its fair share of drama. All eyes were on Gareth Bale, the 23-year-old Welshman who broke out this season with 20 goals to singlehandedly keep his club in the Champions League race. If this year was his coming-out party, then this match against Chelsea, under the brightest of lights, could have been his coronation as the sport's next superstar. But...even the best have days like this, and Bale's not the best. Yet.
Bale is a physical nightmare for opponents. He's strong and extremely fast with or without the ball, and relatively impossible to stop one-on-one. He has a powerful, disturbingly accurate left foot. He's won Player of the Year, and he's dangerous enough that paranoid, prepared defenses like Chelsea's yesterday key in on him, man-marking him, double-teaming him, and cutting him down for 90 minutes. But as great as he is, he's not yet on the level of a Messi or a Ronaldo, able to score virtually at will despite his opponents' efforts.
So sometimes, like last night, Bale can be marked out of the match. And since the knock on Spurs is that they're a one-man team with little scoring support, you would have expected Tottenham to lose. If Bale was the best player on the pitch, then Chelsea fielded the next best eight or nine. From start to finish, it was obvious Spurs were overmatched by a better, fresher Blues side. But yesterday, Gareth Bale had help in the form of a large, largely irrelevant striker named Emmanuel Adebayor, who'd only netted three league goals all season. And because Adebayor showed up, Tottenham now have a prayer, if not control, of Champions League qualification.
Adebayor seemed an unlikely candidate to earn his team a point, because the first thing the towering, Togelese striker did was gift Chelsea a goal. After a dominant first 1o minutes for the Blues, Chelsea won a corner, and Juan Mata swung in a ball from the right side. The 6-foot-3 Adebayor, untouched, stepped into his leap, but misjudged his timing. The ball sailed over his head to Chelsea center back Gary Cahill in the six-yard box. Cahill headed it back post, and a waiting Oscar finished the play.
But Adebayor would recover in stunning fashion just 15 minutes later. With Chelsea's formation stretched and centerbacks Cahill and David Luiz forward following a corner kick, Adebayor gathered a pass inside his own half. Cahill and Luiz were tracking back, but Adebayor had space to carry the ball. He dribbled over the halfway line on a slow counter and kept going, unchallenged by backpedaling Chelsea right back César Azpilicueta.
Thing is, Azpilicueta made the right decision by not challenging the striker. He was the last line of defense, and it's hard to stop a player running at you with pace. If he lunged, Adebayor would've likely beaten him. Azpilicueta would've been out of the play, and another defender would've had to slide over, creating channels for wingers Aaron Lennon and Bale to exploit. So Azpilicueta kept Adebayor in front of him. The real mistake came when Cahill and Luiz finally recovered. Lennon had caught up to Adebayor and was running to his left, so Azpilicueta had to stay home at right back. With Adebayor closing in on the box, the onus was on Cahill to step forward and stop the ball, since he now had Blues defenders in support. And Cahill probably would have, if he knew the has-been striker was still capable of doing this:
You're not going to see a classier finish than that. You just won't, sorry. Adebayor scored one of the most important, beautiful goals of the season, and Spurs came level, 1-1.
Six minutes before the half, Chelsea regained the lead on Ramires's cheeky toe-poke off a pinpoint through-ball from Fernando Torres. Spurs spent much of the second half pressing for an equalizer, and in the 80th minute, they found it—again thanks to Adebayor.
Left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto corralled the ball on the left wing, about 30 yards from Chelsea's goal. He took one touch, opened his hips, and chipped in a low pass to Adebayor, who had maneuvered in front of Cahill deep in the box. Adebayor chased down the pass, and on the first hop played an unreal, no-look heel pass to substitute winger Gylfi Sigurðsson, who was left unmarked in the box by a ball-watching Luiz. Sigurðsson took one touch to control, then tucked a low shot into the far side netting to even the score, 2-2.
That's how it would end. Chelsea will feel like they deserved more, but all season, Spurs have picked up points where they had no right, and were once more able to stay alive. So what happens now?
Chelsea are in third with 69 points. Arsenal sit fourth with 67, and Spurs are in fifth with 66. The tiebreaker is goal differential, and Chelsea have a slight edge on Arsenal, while Tottenham sits way back. Each club has two matches remaining.
The draw, if disappointing, wasn't a bad result at all for Chelsea. The Blues are in pole position to qualify for the Champions League, and can make it official with a win Saturday at 13th-place Aston Villa. Villa can still technically be relegated, so they'll ostensibly be up for the match, but Chelsea will be expected to take all the points. If they don't, their finale is a tough one, at home against sixth-place Everton playing their final match under manager David Moyes. Moyes is moving on to United this summer following Alex Ferguson's retirement.
Arsenal also control their own fate. On Sunday, they host 18th-place Wigan, who always seem to find a way to squirm out of the relegation zone just as the trap door's closing. It won't be easy for Arsenal, but they have more quality and have 70 million reasons, by way of a promised transfer budget, why they'll give their all to qualify for the Champions League. Arsenal finish the season at Newcastle, who are in 17th, three points atop Wigan. There's a good chance the Gunners will have to beat two relegation candidates in a row to ensure a top four finish. They can, and they should...but teams facing a season in the Championship have a way of pulling out unexpected results.
Tottenham need help. They have to hope Chelsea or Arsenal drop points, and they can't leave any of their own on the table. To do so, Spurs have to survive Sunday afternoon at 11th-place Stoke, and then home against 16th-place Sunderland, who could be also be facing relegation. Stoke don't have much to play for, but all the pressure will be on Spurs. If Tottenham draw, a Gunners win and Blues draw this weekend would effectively end the season.
So it comes back to what Gareth Bale, who has carried Tottenham all season, can do for Spurs when it counts. But maybe it's more about what Spurs can do for Bale: He might leave at the end of the season regardless, but surely will if there isn't Champions League soccer to be played next year.