Cupping his ear to the Chelsea fans hurling abuse and flipping fingers, Dele Alli savored the moment. Twice at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, inside four minutes. With two goals, the Tottenham midfielder answered his critics and ended his team’s 28-year victory drought at Chelsea.
By coming from behind to win 3-1 in west London, Tottenham extended its lead over Chelsea for the fourth Champions League place to eight points and left the Premier League champions facing a season out of Europe’s top competition.
“I am sure people will still be disappointed with the way I have played,” Alli said. “They will have plenty to say.”
If so, they’ll lose sight of just how much Alli has already achieved while still so young.
Signed by Tottenham from Milton Keynes Dons in 2015 for only five million pounds (now about $7 million), Alli has 36 goals and 25 assists in 100 Premier League games.
“Sometimes we lose the focus that he is only 21 years old,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said, “and sometimes there is too much expectation on his shoulders.”
The expectation was even greater on Sunday with top-scorer Harry Kane starting on the bench after three weeks out injured, and with Alli’s recent struggles under the microscope.
Alli’s place in England’s World Cup squad was even questioned after playing just 22 minutes of two friendlies in the international break.
“He needs to win the trust and confidence of the national team manager again,” Pochettino said. “The only way to win trust and confidence is to play like he did today.”
It was going to take something special to eclipse the exploits of Christian Eriksen, and to spare the blushes of Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris who flapped at a cross to allow Alvaro Morata to head Chelsea in front.
Eriksen’s equalizer came in first-half stoppage time – a powerful, swerving strike from 25 yards.
“He’s a magician with the ball,” Alli said.
While Eriksen’s shot flummoxed goalkeeper Willy Caballero, the pace and movement of the visitors troubled the entire Chelsea team in the second half.
A combination of Eric Dier’s vision and Alli’s technique sent Tottenham into the lead in the 62nd minute.
Dier launched a high ball from inside his own half over the Chelsea defense. Alli brought it down with one touch and used his second to lift the ball past Caballero.
Chelsea was reeling. The task got even harder after failing to close down a Tottenham counterattack in the 66th minute.
Dier and Eriksen broke forward and fed Son Heung-min, who cut in from the right and forced Caballero off his line. The goalkeeper did block Son’s route to goal but the South Korean recovered the ball. Caballero made another intervention but Andreas Christensen failed to adequately clear and Alli pounced for his eighth goal of the season.
“He’s so strong, he’s a fighter, very competitive,” Pochettino said. “There is a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He has nothing to show to me or to us.”
It wasn’t a sight Antonio Conte wanted to see. The Chelsea manager was left to kick water bottles in anger on the touchline.
“There was great frustration to concede a stupid goal in this way, instead of putting this ball in the stand,” Conte said. “Maybe I wanted to play in that moment and to shoot the ball.”
It encapsulated a season of irritation for Conte, whose last chance of silverware is in the FA Cup. Like Tottenham, Chelsea is through to the semifinals where it faces Southampton later this month.
“I don’t want to create problems,” Conte said, when asked to explain Chelsea’s predicament – seemingly mirroring the decline after winning the title in 2015 with Jose Mourinho being fired.
Once again, the future of Chelsea’s manager is very much in doubt. It seems unlikely even lifting a cup can save Conte, given the team’s collapse from champions to sixth place with seven games remaining.
It was only 10 games ago that Chelsea was in second place and seven points ahead of fifth-place Tottenham.
Now after winning at Chelsea for the first time since Gary Lineker scored in a February 1990 game, Tottenham is in pole position to qualify for the Champions League for a third consecutive season.
And all the hard work was achieved with Kane on the bench. Tottenham’s top-scorer only featured in the final 20 minutes after his right ankle made a rapid recovery from the ligament damage sustained three weeks ago.
“After 28 years to win again at Stamford Bridge, I think is a massive thing for our fans,” Pochettino said.