Chelsea-Spurs FA Cup semi-final would have been a fitting final
The top two Premier clubs in the country battle it out in Saturday night’s first semi-final with four players from each club nominated for PFA team of the year, while Arsenal and Manchester City contest the other semi-final
This weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley feature a quartet of teams from England’s big six and, even in that context, it is the Chelsea v Tottenham tie that stands out as the top-quality contest.
Saturday night’s match would have been a fitting final between the two teams now separated by only four points at the top of the Premier League and their superior class was recognised this week when the PFA team of the year contained four players from each club.
By contrast, Arsenal and Manchester City, who contest tomorrow’s second semi-final, had no players deemed worthy of inclusion by their fellow professionals. The other three clubs represented in the team came from Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton.
The Chelsea and Tottenham players chosen for the PFA team are indicative of what are seen as the respective strengths of the two clubs and where the key battlegrounds will be marked out in tonight’s match.
Chelsea’s quartet centred on their strong spine, with holding midfielder N’Golo Kante – the favourite to be named player of the year at Sunday night’s ceremony – chosen along with defenders Gary Cahill and David Luiz.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s outstanding attacking player, also made the PFA team, but the choices from Tottenham reflected the view that Mauricio Pochettino’s team have the more exciting forward line. Harry Kane and Dele Alli were included along with the fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, whose forward moves along the flanks add crucial width to Tottenham’s attacks.
The ability of Kane and Alli to hurt Chelsea through the middle, versus the capacity of Kante, Cahill and Luiz to thwart them, might be the defining issue of Saturday night’s semi-final.
Much has been made of Antonio Conte’s switch to a three-man defence that ignited Chelsea’s season, but less highlighted has been Pochettino’s evolution from a 4-2-3-1 formation to the 3-4-2-1 that is bringing out the best in all his attacking players and has led to Tottenham’s blistering run of recent form.
Pochettino’s change was crucial because it has allowed Alli and Christian Eriksen to operate as dual ‘No.10s’ behind Kane – rather than being in competition for a single role - while at the same time bringing the full-backs further forward to bolster the midfield as well as advancing them up the pitch to add weight to the attack. Even with Ben Davies deputising for Rose at left-back, that has proved an irresistible set-up.
Breaking up that pattern of play will be a key task for Chelsea and Kante’s role as defensive shield will be tested as he tries to nullify the twin threat of Alli and Eriksen along with his midfield partner Nemanja Matic.
If Chelsea win that battle, it will have the added benefit of providing attacking possibilities for Hazard in his own No.10 role for Conte’s team.
But the overlooked aspect of Tottenham’s formation - not least in the PFA team - is their three-man defence, which has a better goals-against record than Chelsea and also an excellent distribution service from Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
With their passing ability, the two Belgian defenders allow the Tottenham midfielders to push higher up the pitch and they can play the ball into the holes between the opposition’s defensive lines or switch the play to the flanks.
Clearly the two sides are closely matched, with Chelsea having won their home league match 2-1 in November before Tottenham took revenge at White Hart Lane in January with a 2-0 victory.
Tottenham were closer to their best line-up on the second occasion and have improved since, while Chelsea have not exactly gone backwards but are not quite in top form.
At the moment no team has an answer to Tottenham’s pattern of play and they are the pick on the handicap, which looks the best option as the draw is a big runner in 90-minute play.
Manchester City are strong favourites in the other semi-final but perhaps too strong, with the odds influenced by all the negativity swirling around Arsenal.
It is worth remembering that only this month Arsenal produced their best display in weeks in a home 2-2 against City and they have the quality to raise their game again on the big occasion at Wembley.
The big negative against Arsenal is their poor record against other big-six teams (only one win in eight this season) but City’s form in that respect is also questionable (two wins in 10 in all competitions) and Pep Guardiola’s team have conceded in all of those matches.
City’s odds are just too short and Arsenal are the handicap pick.