It might just be an FA Cup semi-final, but Saturday’s match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur might just take on a greater significance than which side will play in the FA Cup Final in a month’s time.
At the start of April, the Blues enjoyed a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League over their title rivals in Spurs, but two defeats in their last four matches has seen that gap reduced to just four points, as Spurs are currently on a seven-match winning streak in the league.
Psychologically, this match is important for both teams. A Chelsea win will relieve some mental pressure, especially after Sunday’s harrowing defeat to Manchester United where the Red Devils completely outplayed the Blues for 90 minutes and exposed some potential weaknesses in the 3-4-3 formation that has served them so well for most of the season.
Given that Spurs also handed Chelsea a league defeat at the start of the year, a Spurs win on Saturday will only reinforce the fact that they are the in-form team in the division right now and could heap pressure on a Chelsea side that has shown a bit of an air of weakness in the last month.
The question going into this match is whether or not Jose Mourinho gave the league a bit of a blueprint on how to face this Chelsea side.
As far as Spurs are concerned, Mauricio Pochettino may look to replicate some of what worked for Manchester United, but he’ll also know that his version of the 3-4-3 has worked very well against the Blues earlier in the season.
Back in January, the Spurs boss played a matching 3-4-3 to some degree of success. The midfield battle was largely equal, with both sides finding it very difficult to find space, but it was the crossing of Kyle Walker and the aerial prowess of Dele Alli that proved the difference against the right side of Chelsea’s defence which lacks a bit of height.
However, Pochettino will not be able to call on his first-choice left back Danny Rose, who has just returned to training from a knee injury that’s kept him out a month. Ben Davies has performed well for Spurs in his place, but he’s not as dangerous going forward as Rose, who troubled Victor Moses in their meeting back in January.
Walker will still feature, and that should be a concern for Chelsea given their struggles on the left side of defence against United. Marcos Alonso’s absence due to illness was certainly felt, as the Blues tried various solutions at left wing back to limited success, showing the lack of cover for the Spanish wing back.
The good thing for Chelsea is that Alonso will be available to face Spurs, but Chelsea will be missing their left-sided centre back to illness. Gary Cahill spent time in the hospital with a case of gastroenteritis this week and is unlikely to feature, given Conte another headache.
Kurt Zouma struggled last week against United, leaving John Terry and Nathan Ake as his only other options. Should Zouma get the start, it will likely mean that Cesar Azpilicueta switches to the left side of the back three where he hasn’t always looked comfortable.
Conte also has a choice of who to play in midfield, as it’s likely that Tottenham will deploy a midfield two of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama. While Nemanja Matic is the likely choice, the Serbian has shown a lack of ability to control the match with his passing, which causes trouble if the opponent decides to man mark the three forward attackers. Cesc Fabregas solves that issue, but isn’t as solid defensively.
If Conte could merge the two into one player, that would be the ideal player against Spurs, but unfortunately that’s not possible, so the Blues’ boss will have to make a decision to play one way or the other.
The one big factor that could be in Chelsea’s favour is the venue itself. Since 2007, Spurs have won at Wembley just twice in nine matches, including defeats in two of their group stage matches in this year’s Champions League and a draw against Gent in the Europa League.
By contrast, Chelsea have won 9 times in 14 matches played at the stadium with five of those victories coming in Cup finals, including the first FA Cup played at the new version of Wembley.
To beat the Blues, Spurs will have to face down their demons and get a win at a place that they haven’t enjoyed much success, including crucial defeats this season.
If they get through this with a win, it will demonstrate their improved mental state and maturity over the last season, though a Chelsea win could once again remind Spurs that they still have some way to go to consistently perform well in big matches.