Tottenham Hotspur would normally celebrate a performance like this to the rafters, not least in praise of their team's powers of recovery after they twice trailed in an arena that has tended to choke their resolve. Yet, in only drawing across the capital at Chelsea, André Villas-Boas's side have surrendered the initiative to Arsenal in the race for the top four. This was spirited and, as their manager stressed, ultimately impressive. It might also prove damaging.
The visiting support were left to comprehend that confused reality. To have secured a point when, at times, the home side had threatened to run riot felt like an achievement. Spurs had weathered the storm, clinging on as Chelsea passed up opportunities to eke out breathing space, then introduced fresh legs as the home side started to tire, the recent onerous schedule sapping their energy. This team has made a habit of scoring late since the turn of the year. It was as if Villas-Boas had devised a risky if cunning plan which, for a while, threatened to pay off.
One of the substitutes, Gylfi Sigurdsson, plundered an equaliser that might easily have been ruled out with Emmanuel Adebayor offside in the build-up and, in stoppage time, Gareth Bale lined up a free-kick some 20 yards out. A mixture of anticipation and apprehension crackled around the stadium as the Welshman stood poised at the top of his run-up, waiting to deliver another defining moment in a season of personal triumph. But, while his attempt bypassed the defensive wall, it was easy for Petr Cech to claim and, as the goalkeeper clutched the ball, Tottenham's destiny had effectively been ripped from their hands.
They will travel to Stoke on Sunday knowing they must now win their last two games – they host Sunderland on the final afternoon – and hope Arsenal, a point clear of them in fourth, stumble against either Wigan or Newcastle. Chelsea can technically also still be caught, but Rafael Benítez's side need to muster only one win from their final two games to secure their own top-four finish.
It rather summed up the bizarre emotions whipped up by a rumbustious contest that it was the home side's interim manager, whose side technically benefited more from a draw, who was left to bemoan this as a wasted opportunity. "Twice we had the advantage and we could have killed off the game," he said. "Twice we didn't do it."
It was profligacy that let his side down. Chelsea had swarmed all over their visitors, scoring at either end of a breathless first half and creating the better chances thereafter, only to wilt as that fatigue kicked in. Their movement had tormented Spurs up to then, with Eden Hazard irrepressible – until substituted after sustaining a kick – and Juan Mata conjuring at his side. It was the Spaniard's corner that was nodded on by Gary Cahill, out-jumping his markers from a standing start, for Oscar to touch in the opening goal at the far post after eluding Scott Parker.
The hosts' second, six minutes from the interval, was born of a throw-in deep inside their own half with David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar and Fernando Torres exchanging passes before the striker's sublime touch beyond Jan Vertonghen and a retreating Spurs back-line. Ramires burst through before Michael Dawson or Parker could react and toe-poked a splendid finish across Hugo Lloris. Hazard, exploiting Dawson's slip, might have added a third only to sky the ball high and wide. Even more critical was Ramires's slip as he prepared to convert Mata's square pass, the Brazilian's right leg buckling on the slippery surface and the chance drifting away.
On such opportunities can contests such as this turn, and Villas-Boas could be thankful for the miss. This had been his first return to the club that had sacked him 14 months ago, unimpressed with the progress he had instigated during a 256-day tenure. Even after the game he never veered from his insistence that there was no personal motivation born of that stunted spell in succeeding back at Stamford Bridge at his former employers' expense, but that was only because this game meant so much more to his team. Spurs had not won here in 23 years and might have subsided once behind, but their response demonstrated underlying strength of character, even if Chelsea could curse their sloppiness at each of the goals they shipped.
Spurs' first had stemmed from a home corner, Hazard and then Ramires failing to retain possession. Emmanuel Adebayor collected in his own half, advanced unchecked and, when Cahill refused to spring and stifle his progress, curled a fine fourth goal of the league season beyond Cech. It was a wonderful finish and the Togolese was also heavily involved in the second riposte. Adebayor might have been offside as he collected Benoît Assou-Ekotto's cross but his back-heel was still shrewd enough to cut out Cahill, with Sigurdsson scoring with glee.
That set up a furious finale but Spurs could muster no more. Villas-Boas still beamed through his post-match assessment, clinging to the positives from his team's display, but he must now hope for favours from elsewhere if his season's objective is to be achieved. It was Arsenal who potentially benefited most of all from a stalemate.