Antonio Conte is still in his first season in England and finding it hard to believe cup games can be fought with such commitment and vigour. His Chelsea side reached the FA Cup final after a 4-2 victory against Tottenham that the Italian described as a great advertisement for English football.
“England must be proud to have football of this intensity,” the Chelsea manager said. “It is a great achievement for me to reach a final in my first season, but also for my players. They had to come through a really tough game against a very strong team.”
All the more remarkably, Chelsea did it without two of their best players for an hour, through Conte’s decision to start with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench. “It was a big decision to make, and it was not an easy one, but I trust every single member of my squad and today I think I showed that,” Conte said.
“When you arrive at this stage of the season you have to be careful, because we have three tough games in a week. This was always the priority, but on Tuesday we must play again against a team [Southampton] that has had 10 days to rest. Tottenham have an extra day before they play Crystal Palace. It is not easy to understand why this situation must arise, but I felt I needed to deal with it.
“I am glad we came through the game against Spurs, because the win will be very important for the confidence of players like Michy Batshuayi and Nathan Aké.”
A disappointed Mauricio Pochettino said he was proud of his players’ performance and that the result was not a fair reflection of the game. “I think if you look at the game without emotion, we played better but they were more clinical,” the Spurs manager said. “I understand how disappointed the supporters will be, but the players put in a fantastic effort, there was lots of fight, this is still an exciting team.”
Pochettino knows all about his side’s poor record in recent FA Cup semi‑finals, but said it was only important to look at the present and the future. “This is my first time. I cannot change the past. We could have improved in certain areas, we conceded after four minutes then gave away a penalty – I didn’t think it was a penalty – but after fighting back again in the second half we were a bit unlucky to go behind from a corner. That was the first we had conceded all afternoon and Chelsea scored from it.”
The Argentinian declined to say whether he had been surprised by Chelsea’s team selection, though he admitted their second-half substitutes had been effective. “I don’t want to say anything about Chelsea’s choices, but you could see Hazard had an impact when he came on. They made three changes, and when you can bring on Hazard, Costa and [Cesc] Fàbregas it’s not so bad.”