Antonio Conte has given a strong suggestion that Nathan Ake will start for Chelsea in place of the absent Gary Cahill in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, and also hinted at the possibility the departing John Terry may not play again unless David Luiz is injured.
Amid what was an otherwise sombre atmosphere due to the tragic death of Spurs coach Ugo Ehiogu, the Italian did confirm it is “impossible” for Cahill to play the match due to a bout of gastroenteritis that actually saw him go to hospital in midweek as a precaution.
The expectation had been Terry might come back into the team for what would be an emotional big-game return at the end of a week when he announced he would finally be leaving Chelsea at the end of the season, but Conte instead spoke at length about how Ake is better suited to Cahill’s position on the left of the three-man defence, and that the 36-year-old captain is instead seen as the alternative to David Luiz in the centre.
Ake has only played two games for Chelsea since returning from a loan at Bournemouth in January, both in the FA Cup, but now looks set for a recall in the biggest game of the season.
Initially asked about Cahill’s availability, Conte said the centre-half trained in the afternoon on his own and stated “no, honestly, it’s impossible” that he will be in the squad.
When it was discussed whether this might be the occasion for club captain Terry to come in and take the armband, the Chelsea manager instead discussed why Ake is a better fit.
“I think in this system the right position [for Terry] is in the middle of the thee central defenders,” Conte said. “In this case, I think for this position Ake has the right characteristic to be the substitute for Gary, and the same, [Kurt] Zouma for Azpi [Cesar Azpilicueta].
“Ake thinks he deserves to have this chance, to play. Because he is showing me in all this period, always a great commitment. He worked very hard. His behaviour was great, was fantastic, and he never told nothing.
“And don’t forget that Ake was playing every game with Bournemouth, and he wanted to come and to stay with us to try to work together and to help us to fight for the title.
“I think he’s a good player, I think he’s ready to have this opportunity, to have this chance, he deserves this opportunity and I trust him. I have no problem to take this decision.”
Asked who would captain the side in the absence of Cahill and likely omission of Terry, Conte said “this is another problem I have to solve”.
It of course remains possible that all of this is a mere mind game from Conte, especially given he had earlier in the day so conspicuously dismissed the idea that Spurs are “underdogs”, instead looking to ratchet up the pressure by saying they are now too great a “power” to have such ‘excuses’.
At the same time, the Chelsea manager was still keen to point out that the match should be placed in its proper perspective due to the death of Ehiogu.
“Yeah, it is a shock, for sure. It’s a shock because when this type of situation happens, 44 years [old], a former player, and to be a coach. You think … and you hope that this situation never happens for someone.
“But when it happens, you reflect a lot about life. And sometimes, to think, to live the life more, and not sometimes to be angry for stupid problems, because you don’t know if the day after you’ll stay here, or another place.”