Dreary Stamford Bridge return for Conte as Chelsea put one foot in the final

Comical own-goal epitome of farcical Spurs defending as trophy hunt looks to have faded

It was not how Antonio Conte had envisaged his return to Chelsea, the club where he enjoyed such success for two seasons before everything went bang, his departure marked by acrimony and a long-running legal case.

Everything had gone pretty smoothly and impressively for Conte on the domestic front since his arrival at Tottenham in early November but this was quite the unravelling, the only consolation being that his team are still just about alive ahead of the second leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final.

Spurs's defending in the first half was almost impossibly bad. If Kai Havertz's early opener owed much to their looseness, the second was entirely down to it, Japhet Tanganga's attempted clearing header smacking into Ben Davies and flying in for a darkly comic own goal.

It was not Romelu Lukaku’s night. The Chelsea striker was restored to the starting XI after the fallout from his controversial interview and he struggled to make an impression, save for a couple of flashes; his finishing hurried, his moves a little predictable. He could be happy that the focus was elsewhere as Thomas Tuchel took a firm stride towards winning his third semi-final out of three at Chelsea. Spurs have won nothing since 2008 and, on this evidence, they will not end the drought this season.


All eyes had been on the big returnees and all ears on the receptions that they would get. It was muted for Lukaku when his name was announced before kick-off while Conte rather snuck in under the radar as the lights were off for the pre-match show.

Chelsea brought the energy at the outset, much to Conte’s frustration. The breakthrough goal was all about the hustle from those in blue, not to mention a little uncertainty from Spurs’s right-sided centre-half, Tanganga, who gave Emerson Royal a pass out of defence that he did not want.

Marcos Alonso was onto him in a flash, winning the ball and playing in Havertz behind Tanganga, who appeared to want to wait for Hugo Lloris to come and clear. It was never going to happen and Havertz shot low past the goalkeeper, the ball going in off Davinson Sánchez.

Lukaku had chased on to a Havertz flick before that, only to miss the cutback for his strike partner and Chelsea were on the front foot in imposing style in their new-look 4-2-2-2 system.

Tuchel had been able to count upon only four defenders – Thiago Silva the latest absentee with Covid (the virus also ruled out the midfielder, N’Golo Kanté) – which is a bit of a problem when his preferred system involves playing a five. Hence the back four for the first time this season.

It was Spurs in their regular 3-4-2-1 formation who looked like strangers during a torrid first half, which was summed up by the second Chelsea goal. When Hakim Ziyech whipped in a free-kick from the right, the ball was in front of all of his teammates. No matter. Davies had leapt to contest it and he could not adjust his body when Tanganga thumped an attempted clearing header into him, the ricochet flying back and into Lloris’s goal.

Conte stood motionless on the touchline, silently stewing, because it had not been an isolated moment of slapstick defending from his team. Far from it. Havertz had earlier blown a clear chance for 2-0 after Pierre-Emile Højbjerg hit Oliver Skipp with a clearance and watched the ball break for the Chelsea attacker.

It was no exaggeration to say that the tie could have been over at half-time. Chelsea had pot shots from around the area, with Mason Mount seeing two charged down but it should have been 3-0 in the 41st minute when Ziyech drifted over a cross for Lukaku, who had got in front of Sánchez. He rose and glanced a header just past the post.

Conte was spoilt for choice in terms of who to remove at the interval but he limited himself to just one change – hooking Matt Doherty, who had laboured out of position at left wing-back, and introducing Tanguy Ndombele. The eye-catching move was the switch to 4-2-3-1. Tuchel was not the only manager to break his religion of three centre-halves.

Spurs took up higher starting positions, which they had failed to do in the first half when Højbjerg and Skipp were worried about Ziyech and Mount getting in between the lines and the team sunk back.

The visitors began to rebuild their confidence, piecing together a few passing moves, with Ndombele making a difference in the number 10 role. He won a free-kick from Malang Sarr on the edge of the area, from which Harry Kane worked Kepa Arrizabalaga.

But Chelsea continued to threaten. Ziyech sidefooted straight at Lloris after a sweeping move, defined by Lukaku’s nice pass to him on the overlap, while Timo Werner – on for the injured Havertz – curled past the far post. Werner also watched Lloris save his lob after Ziyech’s defence-splitting pass. - Guardian