Premier League leaders Tottenham visit Chelsea on Sunday with their eyes on the title, just as they were four years ago when the London rivals went head to head in what became known as ‘The Battle of the Bridge’.
Tottenham travelled to Stamford Bridge in May 2016 knowing they simply had to win in order to stay in touch with Leicester City at the top of the table and remain in the hunt for a first top-flight title since 1961.
However, Mauricio Pochettino’s side made their journey back across the capital with their title hopes up in smoke after what has gone down as one of the dirtiest clashes in Premier League history.
So what exactly happened in west London that night? Why was it such a bad-tempered contest and what was the fallout?
The visitors arrived at the Bridge, where they had not won since February 1990, bristling, having thrown away the lead, and two vital points, in their previous game at home to West Brom.
Their already spiky mood was not improved by various interviews given in the lead-up to the match in which Chelsea players said they were looking to get one over on their city rivals and help Leicester win the league.
“For different reasons, we arrived at that game in a very sensitive moment,” Pochettino would go on to explain. “We were very aggressive in all that was happening. It was a special moment, very special. Out of context, we can say, ‘Why did Tottenham behave like this?’. But with all the context, in that moment, I think it was normal.”
A cautionary tale
Not that you would have known anything untoward was about to unfold, though, with the visitors racing into a dominant two-goal lead as half-time approached thanks to well-taken strikes from Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son.
Until that point, Spurs defenders Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen were the only players to have been booked, but all that was about to change as the game entered injury-time at the end of the first half.
It was Danny Rose’s late challenge on Willian right in front of the dugouts which was the catalyst to a mass brawl that saw, of all people, Mousa Dembele eye-gouge Chelsea striker Diego Costa.
By that point, even Spurs head coach Pochettino had entered the fray after running onto the pitch to try to separate Rose and Willian, something the Argentinian later admitted was an error of judgement.
“I was involved in the game and I forgot my thoughts,” Pochettino said after the match. “It was a mistake. I cannot go onto the pitch.”
Rose himself was lucky not to see red for his tackle on Chelsea’s Brazilian forward – “The linesman has bottled the decision there, he [Rose] should have been sent off,” was Jamie Carragher’s assessment at the time on Sky Sports – but it laid the groundwork for a feisty second half.
The two players in question were both cautioned, taking the total of first-half yellows to four, with eight more to come after half-time – including in total a record-breaking nine for the north London club – as substitute Eden Hazard inspired the hosts’ fightback to draw 2-2.
‘I allowed them to self-destruct’
Incredibly, however, there were no red cards issued by referee Mark Clattenburg, despite Erik Lamela deliberately treading on Cesc Fabregas’ hand and Eric Dier cleaning out Hazard late on.
“It was theatre,” Clattenburg later recalled. “I went in with a gameplan: that I didn’t want Tottenham Hotspur blaming Mark Clattenburg that they were losing the title. There should have been three red cards to Tottenham.
“I allowed them to self-destruct so all the media, all the people in the world went, ‘Tottenham lost the title’.
“If I sent three players off from Tottenham, what are the headlines?, ‘Clattenburg cost Tottenham the title’. It was pure theatre that Tottenham self-destructed against Chelsea and Leicester won the title.”
It was theatre. I went in with a gameplan: that I didn’t want Tottenham Hotspur blaming Mark Clattenburg that they were losing the title. There should have been three red cards to Tottenham.
I allowed them to self-destruct so all the media, all the people in the world went: Tottenham lost the title
However, the final whistle – which confirmed the end of Spurs’ title challenge – brought more ugly altercations as the two teams headed down the tunnel, with the visitors’ back-up goalkeeper Michel Vorm and Costa going at it, before Vertonghen also became involved in a heated touchline row.
Even Chelsea’s mild-mannered boss Guus Hiddink found himself involved after being knocked into the dugout area during the melee, although the 69-year-old Dutchman saw the funny side to it, joking: “Even at my age, I had no problem falling down!”
What they said…
“It was a London derby we hadn’t lost in 26 years,” Chelsea captain John Terry said at full-time.
“It was always going to boil over. A couple of times it got out of hand but players are fighting for points and titles. It’s emotions – that’s football.”
Meanwhile, former top-flight referee Dermot Gallagher thought the clash was the hardest he had ever seen to officiate in the Premier League era.
“I think that’s the toughest game I’ve seen in 24 years for a referee,” he said. “That was a tough, tough test. The referee realised the stakes, realised the emotions and everything. I think he’s tried to referee the occasion.
“To end up with 12 yellow cards in a match is really extraordinary. He’s tried to stand back and let the players play the game and he’s at the behest of the players then, but the players didn’t buy into what he wanted to do. That’s why he came in really, really tough at the end.”
What happened next?
The Football Association charged both clubs with three breaches of failing to control their players, with Spurs hit with a £225,000 fine – on top of a £25,000 penalty for collecting six bookings in the game – while Chelsea were fined £375,000 having had more previous misdemeanours.
Dembele, who also should have been sent off, was subsequently handed a six-match ban for his attack on Costa which spilled into the following campaign.
“It was a very emotional game and you react to things,” he said three weeks later.
“Now I have to learn from this. My intention was not to do something bad to him. It is not in my character to be so emotional. I’m disappointed about the six-game ban, but I know they want to give a message. I will move on. Hopefully we can keep the passion but do it better. We can be proud of ourselves and take the positives into next season.”
As for Spurs themselves, Pochettino’s team – who had fought all season long for that elusive first top-flight title in more than 50 years – would go on to lose their final two league games to Southampton and Newcastle and somehow finish the season behind arch-rivals Arsenal in third.
All of which sets things up nicely for their Super Sunday showdown as Chelsea once again look to spoil Tottenham’s party…