FACUP REVIEW: CHELSEA TRASH TOTTENHAM 4-2 AT WEMBLEY TO ZOOM INTO FINALS
Here was the contest we had dared to hope for, the two best teams in the country furiously wrestling each other for supremacy in an exhilarating bout at this famous old venue. The only regret? That this was not the final; it would have been one of the greats.
Still, there is now a tradition of Wembley semi-finals and this one will live long in the memory. Perhaps as long as 1991 and that Paul Gascoigne goal, even if it will be less-fondly recalled by Spurs.
It even had a strike which, if not quite as astounding as that one, was still one of the best moments this stadium has witnessed.
Nemanja Matic finally settled this compelling affair with a goal from 30 yards which will accumulate YouTube views and likes for years to come.
‘To see this type of game, I think England must be proud, to have this type of football with this intensity, this level of players,’ said Antonio Conte.
He was right. Too often excitement trumps technique in games deemed to be good in England but here there was quality and thrills in equal measure.
For Tottenham, there will inevitably be regrets. They are becoming that delightful team which comes up short in the final analysis. That may seem harsh, given their improvement.
On Saturday, they were excellent again; yet still second best. Even in defeat, Christian Eriksen was man of the match. Perhaps their time will come. Yet, trophies pass them by. And perhaps not just the FA Cup.
Even with no points at stake, the momentum of the Premier League race shifted back in Chelsea’s favour. With Chelsea buoyed by this win and Tottenham punctured by defeat, the already unlikely task is surely beyond Tottenham now.
This was a seventh successive FA Cup semi-final defeat and Mauricio Pochettino protested that he could not change the past. ‘We need to build the present to have a better future,’ he insisted.
‘I know and I am sure that if I am a Spurs supporter I would feel disappointed. But our fans know the pressure and the momentum we had in the game. And I feel very proud as the players did a fantastic effort. I believe it is an exciting team.
‘Two years ago it was difficult to think we would arrive at that level, to reach a semi-final, final, fight for the Premier League. Now it is a reality. It is important to be clever how we build the team for the next few years.’
But Chelsea prevailed whilst initially holding back their best hand. Conte gambled outrageously, leaving Diego Costa and Eden Hazard on the bench for the almighty clash, later claiming that the Premier League, in scheduling their next game on Tuesday when Spurs play on Wednesday, made him do it.
‘You must take a strong decision and take the responsibility but, for sure, it is not easy,’ he said.
Cometh the hour, the plan was always to reach for the stars and ultimately, that would be decisive. Still, without Hazard and Costa, you suspected Chelsea might start on the back foot. Not so. They fairly flew into Tottenham.
And just four minutes in, Chelsea had exerted their early superiority. Pedro, a constant irritant, set on his way by a Michy Batshuayi flick, was sprinting away and hacked to the floor by Toby Alderweireld. Willian struck the free kick from 20 yards out and Hugo Lloris hesitated, feinting to his right as the ball flew past him to his left.
The tone seemed set. And yet, the momentum would switch on 18 minutes. From a Spurs corner, the ball worked its way back to Eriksen. His cross was sublime but Harry Kane’s stooping header, a triumph of opportunism and skill, was even better. Even if Kante had failed to close – for once – and Nathan Ake failed to mark, it was some goal.
Now Tottenham were in the ascendancy, flying forwards with wing backs Kieran Trippier and Son Heung-min. In midfield there was a veritable heavyweight clash of tag teams; Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante versus Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama.
A more-ferocious contest of better midfielders is hard to imagine in this country. But Conte’s team were creaking. Jan Vertonghen’s lovely cross was met by Eric Dier, who headed just wide on 36 minutes.
Spurs though invited their opponents back into the game. Chelsea gathered their poise and worked the ball out wide for Kante to play in Victor Moses. He broke dangerously into the box yet there was little need for Son’s diving challenge, which begged for Moses to fall over him and a penalty to be awarded. Willian stepped up and again fooled Lloris for 2-1.
Yet each blow invited an equally-compelling counter punch. And, on 51 minutes, when Eriksen spotted Dele Alli making a trademark run from deep, he knew precisely the ball he needed.
With little width and minimal back-lift, the Dane delivered a delightful ball with exquisite precision. Again, his excellent delivery was matched by the finish: Alli, sprinting, meeting the ball first time, directing it past Thibaut Courtois.
Now Spurs believed and Chelsea needed a lift. On the hour it came with Costa and Hazard unleashed on the game, with Batshuayi and a seemingly disgruntled Willian giving way. Tottenham still looked the stronger but neither team would yield. On came Cesc Fabregas for Pedro. Conte’s hand had been played.
Moses flew forwards and a corner was won. Fabregas floated it goalwards and Kyle Walker headed clear but only to Hazard. A posse of Tottenham players flew at the Belgian to close him down. Yet somehow he managed to strike through them all and past Lloris on 75 minutes.
Chelsea might have feared the onslaught. And yet, on 80 minutes, a strike worthy of a wonderful contest settled the game. Hazard, refusing to give up on a seemingly lost cause, chased across the Tottenham, area and touched the ball to Matic.
Thirty yards out, with little danger imminent, Matic simply connected first time with the most-exquisite timing possible.
The ball flew past defenders and past Lloris into the far right hand corner and somehow Chelsea had prevailed with something to spare.