Saturday’s FA Cup final could be as real as it gets where avoiding a P45 is concerned. For Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, the looming showpiece of English football represents a final stab at silverware.
The criticisms directed at Conte are already well-documented, and even if Chelsea do repeat the feat of 2007 and overcome the Red Devils at Wembley, there is little to suggest that the Italian affer’s future lies at Stamford Bridge.
Fifth place is simply not enough for Conte to justify his presence at such a great club,
especially with his side heralding a mammoth haul of 93 points only last year. It is
now simply a matter of restoring battered pride, and in looking back on Chelsea’s
latest run to the F.A Cup final, Conte may glean some clues to victory.
Third round – Norwich (A)
The tie was a challenging trip to Carrow Road, to face a Norwich side that was underachieving in the middle of the Championship. As odds-on favourites to steam through, Chelsea were surprised by a resilient Norwich team that retained possession well and controlled the early phase of the match.
Eventually Chelsea’s superior stamina showed, but the East Anglian hosts held on to secure a replay at Stamford Bridge. As expected, a number of fringe players made appearances for Chelsea on the night, and it would be another lesson in the value of taking the early initiative, with Chelsea proceeding on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
Getting an early hold on the game is easier done against sides such as Norwich, but in a match where one goal will likely decide the outcome, Chelsea must focus primarily on wearing United down and making Mourinho’s men chase the ball.
Fourth round – Newcastle (H)
Negotiating the next two rounds was a straightforward task. Drawn with Newcastle at home in the fourth, Chelsea were dominant in a 3-0 victory, which illustrated how potent the then-champions can be.
There were no real learning points, but two goals from Michy Batshuayi served to underline the importance of having outright strikers with differential skills to the usual starter. Alvaro Morata’s recent upturn has done little to assuage Chelsea’s fans, and if Chelsea concede first, there are little in the way of true alternatives.
Fourth round – Hull (H)
Another home draw followed, at home to Hull City. Back in February, the visitors from Humberside were in the midst of a relegation battle, and the strain of the Championship campaign was showing. Chelsea steamrollered the Tigers 4-0 with two goals from Willian.
The Brazilian has been one of Conte’s more reliable figures in a disappointing season, and if Chelsea go for a high-press with a focus on drawing fouls from United’s inconsistent fullbacks, Willian’s great ability from set pieces could be the telling factor on Saturday.
Quarter final – Leicester (A)
This one went exactly to script, with Chelsea at last taking the early initiative through Alvaro Morata, an equalizer for Jamie Vardy and a late sucker punch goal for forgotten man Pedro in the midst of immense Leicester pressure.
When a match follows expectations, there is little in the way of learning, but after two easy rounds, this match required Chelsea’s defence to invoke an improvised system in which the
work rate of the defence fluctuates.
Luck is often needed for such an approach to work, but with sapping conditions expected at Wembley, the late stages of the quarter-final provide much food for thought.
Semi final – Southampton (H)
This was the match which proved that Conte had – at least partially – heeded the lessons of the 210 minutes in the company of Norwich City. After a difficult first half that ended 0-0, Olivier Giroud proved exactly how important it is to have an element of surprise in the final third.
A few minor tweaks at half time saw Chelsea race out of the traps, and go 1-0 up inside the first minute of the second half. Alvaro Morata wrapped the match up eight minutes from time.
Chelsea must ‘control’ the final to win it On the subject of Conte’s future in the hot seat, the stance of most fans is crystal clear. While Conte himself is understandably reluctant to do much beyond toe the party line, Saturday really is his last chance to prove his adaptability against a top-level peer in Jose Mourinho.
The ‘Special One’ is, of course, known for changing personnel and formations at unusual times. While Conte may need to do likewise, exploiting the wide areas and pressing deep while remaining cautious under pressure is of utmost importance before anything else.