Antonio Conte has been in this position before. He was part of the Juventus team back in 2000 that were nine points ahead of Lazio, who were then managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson, with just eight games to go, before a dramatic collapse in the final weeks saw the Biancocelesti pip them to the Scudetto by a single point. Fast forward to the present day, and the same man finds himself in an almost identical position in charge of Chelsea, with the only difference being that they only hold a seven-point advantage over their closest challengers with the same number of games remaining in the 2016/2017 Premier League season. He has probably replayed the nightmare in Turin over in his head several times since Chelsea lost 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace in a result that hardly anyone, let alone Conte, saw coming, and while destiny remains in their own hands, Tottenham’s relentless pursuit of glory has reignited the fire in a title race that many believed was a foregone conclusion.
Neutral fans will be more than delighted that the Premier League may have one big final twist at the end, with the growing resignation that Chelsea had run away with it replaced by an intriguing situation where Tottenham, who appear to have hit a rich vein of form at exactly the right time, could pip their fierce London rivals to the post. Mauricio Pochettino knows that his team have the belief, confidence and quality to win their first title since 1961, but even if they win all of their remaining league fixtures, there is every possibility that they will have to play the role of bridesmaid once again after they failed to catch Leicester last season. However, Bookmaker Ratings believe that Tottenham have the momentum to join the list of underdogs who have triumphed against the odds by completing one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Premier League history. It would see Chelsea join the likes of Newcastle (1996), Arsenal (2008) and Liverpool (2014) as one of the teams who have unexpectedly blown commanding leads at the summit; despite playing superlative football throughout the majority of the season under a manager who has done wonders to transform their fortunes, Chelsea now face a real test of their title credentials.
It seems remarkable that Tottenham have been able to remain in pursuit of Chelsea without their talismanic striker Harry Kane, with the England star picking up an untimely ankle injury early into their emphatic 6-0 victory over Millwall in the FA Cup. Pochettino’s men have won three straight Premier League games without a player who has already contributed nineteen goals for the cause, and while it is believed that Kane will be back much sooner than first expected in time to face Bournemouth on April 15th, the fact that Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Christian Eriksen have stepped up to the plate speaks volumes about the hunger and desire that the current Tottenham team have in abundance.
Time will tell as to whether Tottenham’s achilles heel will come back to haunt them once again, but if their remarkable comeback against Swansea is anything to go by, they may be above to prove their critics wrong. They have often been criticised for not having a strong enough mentality to maintain a title push for an entire season as they drop points when it really matters (the damaging 1-1 draw at home to West Brom last season is a case in point), but coming back from a goal down with just two minutes left to win 3-1 at the Liberty Stadium may be an indication that Tottenham have discovered the stomach to dig deep and grind out a result when the chips are down.
From a Tottenham perspective, all they can do is continue to win games. Sounds simple enough, but it is the only way they can keep the pressure firmly on Chelsea to do likewise. Pochettino will be aware that Conte’s men have some very difficult games on the horizon, with a home tie against Southampton sandwiched between trips to Manchester United and Everton. While the same could be said for Tottenham, given they have a mouth-watering clash at White Hart Lane against Arsenal in the North London derby at the end of April that could see them all but guarantee they finish above their fierce rivals for the first time since 1995, Chelsea certainly have the tougher run-in on paper.
For all of the energy, enthusiasm and charm shown by Conte on the touchline and media interviews, he looked stunned by his team’s defeat to Crystal Palace. Chelsea were more than unlikely to come away with nothing from a game in which Wayne Hennessey and the defenders in front of him performed wonders to keep out a barrage of attacks after they took the lead, but it may have dawned on Conte that their safe flight towards the Premier League may be set for some late turbulence. Punters may still be convinced enough to back Chelsea to finish as champions in the free competitions listed on Bookmaker Ratings, even though Tottenham are showing no sign of going away quietly. It will come down to who holds their nerve during a period when true champions stand up and be counted for; Chelsea may have put themselves in a wonderful position thanks to Conte and a number of star performances from Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and N’Golo Kante to name just a few, any more slip-ups could cost them the one thing they have worked so hard for all season.
Chelsea may have thought the title was won, but the race is not over. Far from it.