FA Cup: Chelsea's typical winning mindset set them apart from perennial pretenders Tottenham Hotspur
It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Chelsea were too tough for Tottenham in the end. Their winning mindset of yesteryear overshadowed their guile and left them desiring what might have been.
Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur both altered the record books on Saturday as the FA Cup semifinal between the two teams drew to a close at London's Wembley Stadium.
With a 4-2 win over their cross-town rivals, Chelsea reached their seventh FA Cup final since the turn of the century, a tally bettered by no other club in the land. On the other hand, it was Tottenham's seventh straight FA Cup semifinal defeat, the longest such run in the competition's history.
After Saturday's result, and particularly the manner with which Chelsea achieved it, these numbers seem just right and perhaps tell you a story as to what has separated these London rivals in the recent past.
On Saturday, Tottenham for once went into a Wembley date with Chelsea as the favourites, owing to their rich vein of form that saw them go ten league games unbeaten before the game. Mauricio Pochettino's men won eight out of those games and those included back-to-back 4-0 wins in their two previous encounters.
In contrast, Chelsea came into the semifinal on the back of a disappointing defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford last week, which was one of the two reverses Antonio Conte's men suffered in their last four outings.
With Tottenham having closed the gap on Chelsea down to four points at the top of the Premier League, this Wembley showdown was seen as Tottenham's chance to trigger a power shift in the footballing pecking order of London, and even of English football.
The confidence in the north Londoners' ranks was evident from the line-up that Pochettino put out, displaying his choice of an attacking line-up. The Harry Kane-Dele Alli-Christian Eriksen trio that had been running riot in the league in the weeks gone by was strengthened even further by Son Heung-Min — naturally a forward — who was deployed in the left wingback role.
Conte's team selection on the other hand was one that surprised many, perhaps even the Tottenham camp. The Italian left Chelsea's prime attacking threats — Diego Costa and Eden Hazard — on the bench apart from making three other changes. In came Willian, and the inexperienced Michy Batshuayi who had played just 518 minutes for the Blues in all competitions since making the big money move from Olympique Marseille in the summer.
Pochettino's men who would've had a plan to negate the threat of Costa and Hazard were forced to put it on the back burner and quickly devise a new strategy to stop Chelsea's changed attack that had plenty of pace and energy.
The Blues, who were quite clearly out to make a statement after the defeat at Old Trafford, came flying out of the blocks. Tottenham, who were slightly taken aback by the changes, became wary of what to expect from the revamped Blues line-up and in being so allowed Conte's side to settle into a rhythm. They pressed Tottenham high up the pitch with great intensity and made it difficult for them to build any kind of momentum. Slightly rattled by Chelsea's quick start, Tottenham's defensive organisation went for a toss when a lightning quick counter-attack caught them flat-footed. Eric Dier — a midfielder by nature — was playing in the back three, and the lack of instincts of a genuine defender surfaced when he failed to track Pedro's run, allowing the former Barcelona man to run behind him, leaving Toby Alderweireld to make a last-gasp challenge on the Spaniard to halt him in his dangerous charge towards the Tottenham goal, just outside the box.
The Blues scored from the resultant free-kick through Willian and all the pre-match notions of the north Londoners turning a page in their history seemed to be too premature.
However, Tottenham fought back through their talented duo of Kane and Eriksen who conjured up a brilliant equaliser. Kane showed off his predatory instincts as he sent a low back header past Thibaut Courtois in the 18th minute to change the complexion of the match. Tottenham seized control of the game, Eriksen who was roaming around the park like a free soul, started causing the Blues all sorts of problems and that put them under a lot of pressure.
Conte's team once again had to show their resilience, and it appeared it might not be enough to keep a red-hot Tottenham side at bay. But a rare Chelsea venture into their penalty area forced a moment of brainfade from Son as he dived in front of the marauding Victor Moses to bring the Nigerian down and concede a penalty. The South Korean's defensive inexperience was left horribly exposed as the Premier League's leaders went into the break with a 2-1 lead despite being under pressure for large parts of it.
Playing Son at the left wingback position was a bold move by Pochettino, but by the interval it was proving to be a wrong one, and one that hinted at a bit of over-confidence on the Argentine's part.
The pattern of play early in the second half suggested that Chelsea were set to sit deep and perform another one of their trademark shut outs, but Tottenham made their quality count when Eriksen picked out Dele Alli's late run into the box with a peach of a pass that left David Luiz, man of the match on the day, scratching his head. If the Dane's pass was one to be revisited a million times on YouTube after the game, the finish from Alli was equally praiseworthy. The England international made a telling connection despite losing his footing to restore the balance in the game.
Chelsea were pegged back once more, and this time Tottenham came at them even harder. There was wind in the north-Londoners sails and Chelsea were literally pinned deep into their own half. There was period in the game that lasted about five minutes where Chelsea didn't cross the half-way line even once. Such was the dominance of Pochettino's men that one sensed the third goal was just a matter of time.
Chelsea's Italian manager who was down on the touchline dictating every pass, every tackle and every clearance to his players, wasn't ready to be a mere spectator to a Totenham procession. The Italian threw his big guns in the mix, in came Costa and Hazard, and their sheer presence made Tottenham lose focus.
It took the duo time to make an impact, but when the time came, it was a telling one. The Chelsea fans breathed a sigh of relief when their side finally managed to get to the other side of the field in the 74th minute. That endeavour resulted in a corner and the Blues could smell blood at a time when their opponents were on the kill. It was Chelsea's first corner of the match and Tottenham suddenly found themselves in a different mode than what they had been for most parts of the game. Pochettino's men were caught off guard, and a shambolic defence of that corner led to the ball falling to Hazard at the edge of the box with the Blues man completely unmarked. It was then down to the Belgian living up to his class which he did with devastating effect. His precise finish went past Hugo Lloris and Chelsea created a goal from thin air.
It was another moment when the Blues, who were forced to feed on scraps, made the most out of it as Tottenham couldn't force their way through at the other end. With fifteen minutes still left to play, there was enough time for the north Londoners to conjure another comeback, but they lost composure after the third goal and once again, the Blues profited.
Nemanja Matic put the game beyond Tottenham with a thunderous strike that sailed past Lloris to put any signs of a comeback to bed. In fact, Chelsea who brought on Cesc Fabregas toyed with Pochettino's side and almost piled on more misery on them.
The game finished with some staggering statistics. Tottenham had 63% possession and 11 corners in the game as opposed to Chelsea's 37% and one corner. Apart from the fact that Chelsea scored from their solitary corner, the Blues also managed more shots on target (five) than the north Londoners (four) in the game despite seeing just one third of the ball in the game. It is a stat that reflects poorly on the north Londoners, and assigns a feeling of hollowness to their dominance in the match.
It was only the two flashes of brilliance that got Tottenham on the scoresheet despite bossing the game, while Chelsea who rode waves of attacks after another didn't let the pressure take a toll on them. They had faith in their quality even in the most testing times believed that they would be light at the end of the tunnel. They kept on going and as it turned out there was bright sunshine at the end of the evening when a few dark clouds threatened to derail their campaign.
If there was one thing that this game threw up, it was the difference between being a good team and being real winners. Chelsea showed that they were the latter. Tottenham were really good in terms of quality of the play and caused Chelsea problems, but when it came to delivering, Chelsea trumped them all ends up. It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Chelsea were too tough for Tottenham in the end. Their winning mindset of yesteryear overshadowed the guile of their opponents and left them desiring what might have been.
It was a case for deja vu for Tottenham all over again, and the defeat showed they are yet to shed the perennial pretenders tag. Things have progressed really well for the north London club under Pochettino, and with the title race still wide open, they may yet have a chance to do so this season, but till then Chelsea are the real winners and Tottenham can only pretend to be that.
Emile Smith Rowe made 33 first-team appearances for Arsenal during a breakthrough campaign last season.
Townsend, 30, was a free agent after his contract with Crystal Palace expired at the end of last season.
The Premier League side were scheduled to play Italian champions Inter Milan this weekend in the opening round of the Florida Cup, which also includes Everton and Colombia's Millonarios.