“I adapt my idea of football to my players, not adapt my players in my idea of football. The players are the most important thing in football. I adapt my idea within my players,” coach Antonio Conte had said last season during Chelsea’s emphatic Premier League triumph when the Italian successfully introduced a new tactical system in England and it seemed like the London club had finally found the recipe to long-term success in a suave, astute manager after the ‘Mourinho era’.
A year later, as Chelsea look forward to yet another summer of uncertainty with speculations about a new manager and possible departures of star players Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and even Alvaro Morata swirling around, the West London club will travel to one of their favourite venues, the Wembley Stadium on 22 April, Sunday to face Southampton in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, their only shot at silverware this season.
Southampton themselves are going through a bit of crisis as they are facing relegation to the second division with just four league games to play. Riddled with injuries, suspensions and struggling form of certain key players, the Saints have also been starved off passionate displays, much to the chagrin of their fans.
While Mario Lemina and Sofiane Boufal are likely to miss out due to a back injury and an illness respectively, Jack Stephens remains suspended. Newly-appointed manager Mark Hughes will go with an unchanged back three, but it is the attacking trio of Shane Long, James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic on whom Southampton’s chances of qualification for the final rests.
The Saints face an uphill battle, especially as they have lost all their previous five matches against the Blues in all competitions. Just ten days back, Hughes’ side gave up a two-goal lead at home against a vulnerable Chelsea team. Their confidence in tatters, the Saints would have made for an easy target for Antonio Conte’s men in any other season, but Chelsea have been surprisingly inconsistent and unpredictable since the turn of the year.
While Conte and the rest of the team had given up on defending the Premier League title long back, their capitulations at the hands of Arsenal and Barcelona in the other two cup competitions – League Cup and UEFA Champions League – especially their manager’s reluctance to go with an ‘all-out attack’ approach has hurt the team’s chances in knockout games.
“We must have great motivation to finish the season as strong as possible. Now we have this chance to play at Wembley, we have the possibility to win the game against Southampton and play an important final for the second time in a row. We have to try to do our best,” Antonio Conte told reporters and to be fair to the Italian, he did innovate his formation and adapt to his players to defeat Burnley in their last league fixture.
However, Chelsea’s biggest concern will be whether their star players will be fresh enough for this contest. Eden Hazard and Willian are likely to start, as are N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas, in spite of Tiemou Bakayoko’s strong showing in the midweek. Olivier Giroud has made a strong case for another start upfront, but Morata is the more realistic choice for Conte.
Should Chelsea’s manager choose to start with both his centre-forwards akin to the Burnley game, the Saints will be further disadvantaged, but Hughes admitted this is an opportunity they simply cannot pass upon.
“It's not every season you get the opportunity to get to a major cup final. It's the greatest cup competition in the world in my view. It's an opportunity to get to a major final and we are going there to make sure we don't let it pass by,” Hughes said in the pre-match press conference. It surely is a golden opportunity for Premier League struggles against a Chelsea side that has simply lacked the motivation in most matches to take charge of the game.
In past, Chelsea sides which lacked in talent often made it up in determination, their displays of sheer will legendary in the European circuit, but fans of the club have been repeatedly subjected to lacklustre, mundane performances this season, both from the manager as well as the players.
The magic of the FA Cup, the oldest club competition in the world, often brings out the best in players and their current forms notwithstanding, a brilliant individual performance from either club or a spirited display from either team could very well determine the fate of Sunday's semi-finals.
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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2018 13:43:48 IST