* I’ll level with you, Antonio: I doubted you. We all doubted you. We saw the Chelsea teamsheet for the FA Cup semi-final, and we worried. We assumed Michy Batshuayi would struggle to hold the ball up, and we worried that Tottenham’s pressing would be too much for the Blues, just as it had been at White Hart Lane in the league fixture.
At times, we were right. Tottenham dominated territory and possession for more than half the match, and Batshuayi was anonymous after the first three minutes. But Tottenham were never ahead on the scoreline.
But ultimately, we were wrong and Conte was gloriously right. If the best teams find a way to win, Chelsea will be the deserving Premier League champions and FA Cup winners too. Having twice clawed themselves ahead against the run of play, Nemanja Matic sealed victory with the greatest shot the new Wembley Stadium has seen.
* More bitter disappointment for Tottenham, who would be advised to fight as hard as they can to stay at White Hart Lane next season. They created more chances, had more shots, earned more corners and generally played better than Chelsea, but were ultimately beaten by the Premier League’s best attacking player and an auto-Matic rifle. That Wembley curse goes on.
If Spurs’ afternoon could be summed up in one moment, it came in stoppage time with the game already lost. Harry Kane’s free-kick squirmed under the body of Thibaut Courtois, and rolled towards the goal. Rather than providing Tottenham with even forlorn hope, the spin on the ball stopped it dead on the line, and Courtois could collect.
For all the positivity over Tottenham’s 2015/16 and 2016/17, Pochettino knows more than most that he will be judged more on trophies than second places.
“We are thinking about the league but if I’m in Tottenham’s shoes, this week is all about the FA Cup and the chance for this team to get a trophy,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football last week. “This team is too good not to win things. We have watched them for two or three years and we love watching them. We want to see them do well.”
As Carragher and others know only too well, no team is too good to go down nor too good not to win trophies. Results and seasons are settled in big moments and, against Chelsea, Tottenham allowed their opponents to have too many. At least two of their goals were self-inflicted.
* Of course this was a huge occasion for Tottenham and Chelsea, but it was put into perspective by the tragic death of Ugo Ehiogu on Friday. Wembley paid its respects to the former England international and Tottenham U23 coach with a mural on the sides of the stadium, and the pre-match tributes were understandably emotional. Ehiogu’s name was chanted throughout the minute’s applause.
Every one of the tributes on Friday, from friends and former teammates alike, focused not just on Ehiogu’s proficiency but his personality. He was a coach whose impact on young players made them better footballers and better people, and this is a seismic loss for a close-knit club.
Ehiogu’s death also sends out a message to football’s wider audience. When life can be so tragically ended at the age of 44, without warning, it is an emphatic reminder to live every day to the full. On that advice, Tottenham and Chelsea supporters alike could unite. I’m not sorry for being a bit mushy.
* Of all the things to expect in the team news, Batshuayi starting for Chelsea was not one of them. The Belgian has played only 110 minutes in the Premier League this season, a peripheral figure after being signed for £30m. This was not the only extraordinary team news from Chelsea, with Conte choosing to leave both Diego Costa and Eden Hazard on the bench.
Was this the result of last week’s tired performance against Manchester United? Had Conte chosen to concentrate on getting their Premier League campaign back on track, with Southampton visiting Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, thereby sacrificing the FA Cup?
The more you thought about it, the more it made sense (and I promise I wrote that sentence before the game began). Conte risked criticism with his selection, but has already earned plenty of favour with the squad. With the illness that hampered the trip to Old Trafford still affecting members of the squad, going for broke in both competitions and ending up empty-handed would be a rotten conclusion to a fine season. As it happened…
* The other direct result of Conte’s teamsheet is that we were again subjected to questions about the FA Cup’s alleged decline. ‘When did the FA Cup semi-final become the match to rest players in?’ people asked.
You can see the point, in fairness. When once this would have been a showpiece occasion with managers having no option but to play their best team, Conte clearly felt it appropriate to leave two star players out. The last time the teams first and second in the Premier League met in the FA Cup semi-final (Arsenal vs Manchester United in 1998/99), Alex Ferguson picked his strongest team. They played the replay three days later and then beat Sheffield Wednesday at home three days after that.
Still, if coaches earn their reputations by inviting pressure and then dealing with it, Conte has proven himself to be the best manager in the Premier League once again. His joyous, passionate celebration after Matic’s goal was the reaction of a man who understood the psychological advantage his side had recovered, not just in this competition but the Premier League. Poor Southampton.
* I’m sorry to have to report it, but football fans are at it again. After ten minutes of the game, a plane passed over Wembley Stadium with the message ‘Antonio! Antonio!’.
1) Plane messages are usually negative, so at least well done for that.
2) Why on earth do you need to fly a plane? Just sing his bloody name.
3) What kind of message is ‘Antonio! Antonio!’? It’s literally just your manager’s name. Twice.
4) We need to talk about exclamation marks.
* See here’s the thing. Last week I made Toby Alderweireld our early winner, and announced that he had committed only 16 fouls in the Premier League since the start of last season. Toby Alderweireld has still only committed 16 fouls in the Premier League since the start of last season, but…
It was a beautiful move from Chelsea, and one which must have made Conte dance a mental jig, so to speak. Nathan Ake (in for Gary Cahill) won the ball cleanly with a superb tackle, and played the ball down the line. Batshuayi (in for Costa) flicked it beautifully to Pedro, who charged forward. Alderweireld then scythed down Pedro on the edge of the box, and was rightly booked. Willian (in for Hazard) scored the free-kick. It’s easy this management lark.
* As so often with this type of free-kick goal, questions must be asked of Hugo Lloris. The goalkeeper’s first movement was to his right, anticipating a shot over the wall. When the ball was then delivered to the post the goalkeeper was guarding, and squeezed inside the near post, the blame will always lie with him.
* Tottenham looked rattled in the opening 15 minutes, more than we have seen them at any point over the last four months. They were sloppy when playing the ball out of the back, but the biggest problems were caused by their shape.
With Kieran Trippier and Heung-min Son playing as wing-backs, both were too often caught up the field. The result was that Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen were stretched out wide to try and fill the space in behind the wing-backs. Pedro in particular enjoyed chasing after the ball close to the touchline.
When the central defenders in the three were stretched wide, it left only one defender in the middle, increasing the potential for an overlap when Pedro came back into central areas and Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso pushed up the flanks. That is where the opening goal came from.
* Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Tottenham might have prospered with Harry Kane injured for four weeks in March and April, but which team wouldn’t want a striker of his finishing ability back in the penalty area? There are not many areas in which Kane has proven himself ineffective over the last two years, but I hadn’t realised flicked backheaders with the ball three feet from the ground was a speciality. Add it to the list.
It was a supreme finish, but Conte will still be frustrated that no Chelsea defender was touch-tight to the striker. Had they been, the header would surely have been blocked.
* Tottenham’s equaliser notably deflated Chelsea, and Pochettino’s side began to dominate. They found the out-ball to Eriksen or Alli far too easily, while Chelsea struggled to do anything other than hit the ball into the channels for Batshuayi to chase. More than once Pedro displayed his frustration at his teammates’ inability – or unwillingness – to harry Tottenham’s defenders in possession.
Chelsea’s biggest weakness came on the left flank, where Alonso struggled to contain the combination of Eriksen and an overlapping Trippier. The Spaniard’s only obvious answer was to commit fouls near the touchline – from which Eriksen could deliver crosses – or fail to stop the ball coming into the box.
* Yet it was Chelsea who regained the lead against the run of play. For all Pochettino’s tactical excellence this season, did he make a mistake in playing Son at left wing-back?
He must certainly have wondered the same question when the South Korean slid into a challenge on Moses, when the best option would have been staying on his feet and showing the Nigerian to the byline. Moses made the most of the contact – perhaps even jumped over it – but it was a ludicrous tackle to make. The penalty was converted, Willian was on a hat-trick, and Chelsea were back in the driving seat.
One semi-interesting aspect of the penalty was watching Conte bawling instructions from the touchline to let Willian take it, after he and Batshuayi appeared to be in discussion over who had the responsibility. Decision, and bawling, vindicated.
* There are moments of matches that make you sit back and stare in wonder, and there are few players in the country who are as capable of producing those moments as Eriksen. His curled pass into the penalty area for Alli to equalise was the assist of the season. This is surely the second best passer in the league after David Silva.
You’d think that Chelsea were used to Eriksen passing from that deep position into the box. That was his fourth assist of the season against the same club, and all from a similar area. A reminder that Eriksen cost just £12m, and recently signed a new contract worth only £75,000 a week.
A mention too for the goalscorer. This was not Alli’s greatest performance (that tendency to go down too easily continues to frustrate, and his foul on Moses was abysmal), but the young man always finds a way. This was his 30th goal in 90 matches for Tottenham. You would be impressed by that ratio in a young striker, let alone an attacking midfielder who creates chances as well as finishes them.
* As if to continue the pattern of the match, Tottenham stayed on the front foot after equalising before conceding the next goal. This time it was crucial.
Having astonished most onlookers by leaving Hazard and Costa on the bench, Conte was then able to make the double impact substitution. A less humble coach might point out that the plan worked to absolute perfection.
If Chelsea are getting sick of Eriksen assists, Tottenham will be just as fed up of Eden Hazard goals. The Belgian derailed their title challenge last season, and played a pivotal role in their FA Cup exit.
5 – Eden Hazard has scored more goals for Chelsea against Spurs than he has against any other side. Danger.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 22, 2017
Then there was time for Matic, the underside of the Wembley crossbar and a shot that made your tummy do backflips.
* It is unusual to pick a player on the losing side as Man of the Match, but Mousa Dembele is the closest rival to N’Golo Kante for the title of the Premier League’s best central midfielder. Like Eriksen, he is a player underrated purely because of the club he plays for.
Dembele’s ability to retain the ball, even in the tightest of spots and under pressure, can easily look like evidence of his physical strength, and that is clearly one of his assets. Yet the Belgian also has a wonderful knack of positioning his body in the perfect place to shield the ball, while still retaining control of it. That enables him to surge forward while holding off his man, before flicking a pass with his toe at the exact moment an opposition player prepares himself to strike.
Against Chelsea, Dembele registered a passing accuracy of 92.5%, but he is a player who excels in the immeasurables. Is that the reason he has never been linked with a £40m move to a truly elite club? At 29, that time may have come and gone. Tottenham, rightfully, will not mind.
* From a neutral’s perspective, it was wonderful to have such a big fixture live up to the hype. The danger was that Chelsea and Tottenham might cancel each other out, but this was a wonderful display of the strengths and weaknesses of the best two teams in the Premier League. An early goal always helps to create a better spectacle, but this match pleasantly surprised.
The most pertinent conclusion is this: At Wembley on Saturday we witnessed the team capable of playing the best football in the country against the team most capable of getting victory under any circumstance. If Matt Stead can give you 16 Conclusions on Sunday on a match as good as this, the FA Cup will truly be alive and kicking.