Mauricio Pochettino has told Chelsea that, with all the experience of their players and manager, they must be the favourites for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
It will be one of the biggest games of the Pochettino era so far, and Spurs go into it in far better form than Antonio Conte’s league leaders. Spurs have won their last seven Premier League games in a row, while Chelsea have lost two of their last four, and the gap between the two sides has shrunk.
Spurs are simply playing much better than Chelsea are at the moment. After Chelsea’s collapse at Old Trafford last Sunday, it would make perfect sense for Tottenham to be favourites. But that is not how Pochettino wanted to frame the match at his Thursday afternoon press conference.
“If there’s a favourite it is Chelsea,” Pochettino said. “They are top of the Premier League, with experienced players and the manager they have.”
Pochettino pointed to their triumphs in the 2012 Champions League and 2013 Europa League, Antonio Conte’s three Serie A titles with Juventus and even the fact that two of their players, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro, were part of the Spain team that won the 2010 World Cup. It was a celebration of Chelsea’s recent record, but also a reminder of their responsibilities.
“We are talking the team in the last five years won European competitions, World Cups, and a manager who won the title in Italy,” he said. “They’re more experienced. But we’re in a good moment too. We’re hungry and to challenge this team is important for Tottenham. We will see but important to enjoy the game. We must feel the happiness. It’s a very important competition and we are fighting the best team in England.”
But while Pochettino said that Chelsea were favourites at Wembley, he told his Spurs players to make the final mental step, to go from being a good team to a winning one. This is Pochettino’s third season at White Hart Lane in which he has dramatically improved Spurs, into a side regularly in the top four and competing for titles. But now they need to win one.
“It’s nice to say we are ready and we want to win, but it’s not an easy task,” Pochettino said. “It is difficult to win trophies. Three years ago when we signed here it was all about how we can reduce the gap with the top four, that was the main problem Tottenham had. Not only have we reduced the gap but we are fighting for the Premier League, to win titles. That’s the position we wanted and we achieved that.”
So how do Spurs take the next step and reach the FA Cup final? “To win is more difficult,” he said. “First you have to be there and challenge, we have the opportunity to challenge. It’s up to us to step up and make the dream a reality. We must show it’s a final from the first moment, being aggressive and trying to play under our philosophy and mentality and competing. To have the opportunity to play against one of the best teams in Europe, it doesn’t happen often. It’s very exciting.”
The good news for Spurs is that they are currently playing the best football they have yet played under Pochettino. They already have more points than they took last season, and they only need two more from their final six games to reach 73, their highest of the Premier League era. They are playing brilliantly, and Pochettino knows it, which is why him saying that Chelsea are favourites does, ultimately, sound like mind games.
“We are showing we learned from last season,” Pochettino said proudly. “If we only see the data we improved a lot. With six games to play we have achieved 71 points, when last season we finished with 70. We have improved, that’s a reality. We are in a great moment. That is most important. Now is the moment to translate those stats and that feeling and show if you’ve grown up and learned or if you’re very close to winning the league or the FA Cup. That’s the most difficult step.”