Antonio Conte’s Chelsea might not have produced the greatest performances of late, but they certainly know how to deliver a great victory when the pressure is on, and they rarely come much more significant than a win over a bitter opponent in an FA Cup semi-final.
This was one of those days when Tottenham Hotspur’s young players showed that they can compete with the very best but whether they can beat them remains a question still unanswered. Against the side they are chasing for the Premier League title, Mauricio Pochettino’s players controlled much of the match and, in Christian Eriksen, had the game’s best player but they simply could not put the game away.
Instead it is Chelsea for whom the league and Cup double is very much on, and yet another FA Cup semi-final defeat for Spurs – their seventh – since the club last won the competition in 1991. They have had another fine season but it threatens once again to end without a trophy and they will regard this semi-final as a match they really should have won.
The Spurs support had seen enough by the end of the game when Eden Hazard, on as a substitute, and then Nemanja Matic, scored the two deciding goals. The seats emptied in the Spurs end and Wembley Way filled up with fans left wondering when their team will be able to win the games that matter against opposition who have made winning trophies a habit.
Twice Spurs came from behind with goals from Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and then Conte summoned Diego Costa and Hazard from the bench to address his team’s deficiencies and win the game. There had been chances for Spurs once they drew level at 2-2 to put the game away but they failed to do so which was not a mistake that Conte’s players were willing to make.
The Chelsea manager had made some big calls leaving out Hazard and Costa and bringing in Nathan Ake to play in the three-man defence and there were periods where his team looked shaky. As it stands he could yet repeat Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 feat of a double in his first season in charge.
It was hard for Pochettino’s players to accept at half-time, that they were once more trailing a game that they had by and large controlled once the shock of conceding within the first five minutes had elapsed. Two passages of play that had gone against them and two goals conceded, which was a tough lesson to learn.
In between Spurs had control of the game, especially down Chelsea’s left flank where Christian Eriksen was always two paces too far from a blue shirt when he got the ball. It was the Dane’s left footed cross from that side which Kane flicked masterfully with the top of his head on 18 minutes, putting just enough on the ball to change its flight and beat Thibaut Courtois.
Spurs had fallen behind on five minutes to a fine move from Conte’s team encompassing Nathan Ake, the man who stepped in for Gary Cahill, missing with illness and then Michy Batshuayi, Diego Costa’s surprise replacement. On three minutes Ake took the ball from Kane and picked out Batshuayi whose lay-off to Pedro was the striker’s only really meaningful contribution in the first half.
Running into the space was Pedro who got away from Toby Alderweireld rapidly and drew the foul on the edge of the area for which the Belgian was booked. The free-kick was always going to be a very dangerous situation for Spurs, made more difficult by the Chelsea players causing problems in the wall. Willian’s whipped right foot shot came round the corner quickly and beat Lloris.
After Kane equalised Spurs had the best of it, with Eriksen dangerous on their right side and Chelsea struggling with the early ball into the area. From the opposite side, Jan Vertonghen’s cross was headed wide by Eric Dier. Alli planted his studs on David Luiz’s ankle when it looked like he might have been able to avoid the situation.
Then with just three minutes of the half left, Victor Moses got a rare run on the right side of the Spurs area and Heung-min Son went diving when there was no need for him to do so. The Spurs man went down so early there was an open invitation for Moses to topple over him, which he duly did and Martin Atkinson awarded the penalty on the advice of his assistant.
From the penalty spot, Willian beat Lloris. It had not been an entirely assured first half from the Spurs captain who was lucky to get away with a mistake when he pushed the ball out the area with his hands and had to drag it back over the line.
It was always likely to be a difficult task for Chelsea to keep their opponents out for the second half, especially given their own poor record at keeping clean sheets but even so the equaliser came early. It was made again by Eriksen, his second assist of the game, another cross from the right that picked out beautifully the run of Alli between Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta, and the Spurs man finished his 20th goal of the season for Spurs.
The momentum was with Spurs again and Conte did not even wait for an hour until he sent on Costa and Hazard, the former replacing the ineffective Batshuayi.
For all their pressure after the hour, Spurs could not score a third. Kyle Walker, left out of the team, came on to play on the right with Kieran Trippier moved over to the left to take the place of the substituted Son. In midfield Mousa Dembele and Eriksen were the most influential but there was no way through.
The third Chelsea goal, like the second, came against the run of play and was again a brutal punishment for a minor error. That was Walker’s failure to clear the ball properly from a corner and it was all down to the quick feet of Hazard who got the ball into a shooting position quickly and drilled a low shot into the left corner of Lloris’ goal.
By now, Spurs were running out of options. Pochettino sent on Georges-Kevin N’Koudou for Victor Wanyama and perhaps the absence of that defensive midfielder led directly to the fourth Chelsea goal. Hazard’s cut back found Nemanja Matic in acres of space and his left foot shot was unstoppable, a sweet rising driving that clipped the underside of Lloris’ bar and went in. It was over for Spurs.