At 2.15 p.m. at Wembley Stadium, London, when news of the teams for the first FA Cup semifinal of the weekend seeped out, the priority for Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was clear. PFA Player of the Year nominee Eden Hazard and club’s top scorer Diego Costa were rested, named among the substitutes; Conte was not taking any risks.
Chelsea has a four point cushion at the top of the Premier League table, with Tottenham, its opponents at Wembley on Saturday, the lone chaser for the final six games. But with a place in the final available, Conte seemed to have opted for the title over the cup as he looked to the league tie with Southampton on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.
But five hours later, it wouldn’t matter. The Chelsea flags flew high across half of Wembley at the final whistle as Conte pumped his fists and blew kisses toward the fans from west London. With the scores level at 2-2 and Spurs dominating the game, he called upon Hazard and Costa after an hour. The Belgian scored and assisting Nemanja Matic’s 80th minute thunderbolt to see Chelsea hunting the Double and its fifth FA Cup in a decade.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs was far from deserving of defeat here. The Argentine’s team dominated for most of this game, it had more shots, more possession, caused Chelsea more panic. But, in the end, it would go out at the semifinal stage for a record seventh time.
Conte had brought in Michy Batshuayi for Costa, making his first start since January 28, with Willian coming in for Hazard. And it took just five minutes for the duo to play a role in putting the Blues ahead in the semifinal. A long ball from Nathan Ake, making his first start since returning from loan at Bournemouth in January, found the Belgian Batshuayi in the Spurs half. His first time flick released Pedro behind the Tottenham defense.
Pedro, tearing toward the Tottenham goal, was hauled down by Toby Alderweireld just outside the penalty area. David Luiz and Willian stood over the ball, but it was the the latter who stepped up and curled the ball around the wall, to the side covered by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. The Frenchman took a step to his right and was punished when the ball nestled into the net.
The blue side of Wembley burst to its feet and the charismatic Conte punched the air. Having lifted Chelsea from 10th to champions-elect, the Blues have taken to the Italian. Within minutes of the goal, the whir of engines buzzed above Wembley as an aeroplane, carrying a message of “Antonio! Antonio!” flew above the stadium.
The lead was deserved. Chelsea had started the sharper of the two clubs, possibly expected having won four of its last five FA Cup semifinals. In contrast, Spurs had lost six in a row, including being on the end of a 5-1 thumping to Chelsea in 2012.
But Pochettino is delivering a different mindset to the north London club these days. Spurs only looks up now under the Argentine, as it leapfrogs rival Arsenal in the league and is the sole horse chasing Chelsea in the title race as we head into home straight of the Premier League season. There would be no capitulation from Spurs.
In fact, it took just 12 minutes for an equalizer. A repelled corner found its way back to Christian Eriksen on the right and the Dane cut onto his left. Chelsea had learnt the hard way in January that you cannot give Eriksen too much space. At White Hart Lane, he delivered two crosses to Dele Alli to end Chelsea’s 13-match winning run. And he was the key here for Spurs.
Eriksen’s low cross was drilled into toward Kane, facing away from goal with Nathan Ake, deputising for Gary Cahill who has gastroenteritis, slow to close him down. A deft flick added pace to the ball and zipped past Courtois. “He’s one of our own,” sung the Spurs end at Wembley, covered in the last remaining sunlight of the evening.
The goal saw Spurs raise its game. Its passing had more pace, the movement was swifter as they pressed Chelsea higher up the pitch. In the 36th minute, a glancing header from Eric Dier slipped past Courtois’ post, inches from taking the lead.
But with three minutes remaining of the half, all that progress was wasted when Victor Moses went down over a challenge from Heung-Min Son and referee Martin Atkinson awarded a penalty. Willian converted and Chelsea would go into the break with the lead.
But before the interval, in the 44th minute, Wembley stadium was brought to its feet in unison, applauding, following the death of Spurs Under 23 coach Ugo Ehiogu on Friday, aged 44. The former England defender had been coaching at the club since 2014 and lost his life after suffering a cardiac arrest.
When Spurs returned for the second half, it responded as it had done in the first. Pochettino’s team dominated the game once again and it took just seven minutes for Eriksen to unpick the Chelsea defense that had two players named in the team of the year, David Luiz and Cahill. Eriksen picked up the ball midway inside the Chelsea half and saw Alli racing into the penalty area. He measure the pass and delivered a whipping cross that dropped into the 20-year-old’s path, and his first time effort flew past Courtois. Spurs would not lay down.
And it looked like the team to win it as it had penalty calls after Kane went down under a challenge from Moses and Alli was caught by N’Golo Kante. Atkinson waved the calls away. This was when Conte called upon Hazard, and the Belgian’s influence was instant.
With 15 minutes of the game remaining, a Chelsea corner was only half cleared by Kyle Walker. It fell to the feet of Hazard who shifted the ball to his left and drilled it through a crowd of players, past Lloris and into the far corner.
Spurs couldn’t deal with his quick, fresh feet. Five minutes later, he danced across the penalty area, past two defenders, and teed up Matic. The Serbian hit a thunderbolt of a shot that rocketed onto the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net. Chelsea’s place in the final was confirmed.
Chelsea hosts Southampton on Tuesday with Hazard and Costa fresh, Conte chasing the Double in his first year at Stamford Bridge. Conte’s only priority, it would seem, is winning.
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