Ayodeji Itasanmi (Twitter: @aryhorblueblood)
Wembley Stadium/April 22, 2018
We face Mark Hughes’ Southampton side for the second time in nine days when we face off in the semi-final of the FA Cup on Sunday at the home of English football, Wembley Stadium. Antonio Conte and his team will be looking to make it three consecutive victories for the first time this year after wins over Southampton and Burnley on Saturday and Thursday respectively. It’s yet to be seen how Mark Hughes approaches this game with his team perilously close to relegation as four points stand between them and safety as of Friday with four matches to go. if you ask any Southampton fan if they will take an FA Cup triumph over relegation, I’m sure many of them will say yes but it’s what the coach says that matter and I’m sure Sparky will want his unblemished record of not having been relegated in the Premier to remain intact. One thing is certain and that is that this is going to be an explosive game of football at Wembley where we have a pretty decent recent record.
Chelsea has progressed to the final of the FA Cup 11 of the last 14 times we have played in the semi-final only failing to progress in 1996, 2006 and 2013. However Southampton has won four of the five FA Cup games they’ve had against Chelsea losing 5-1 the last time the two teams met in the competition in the third round in 2013. Wembley has not been such a happy hunting ground for the Saints as they have lost 5 of their last seven visits to the iconic Stadium winning the 1976 FA Cup and the Football League Trophy there in 2010. Chelsea had never beaten Southampton five consecutive times but that was what we achieved with Saturday’s victory and so Antonio Conte will be looking for an unprecedented sixth win on the trot against the Saints when both teams take to the pitch on Sunday afternoon with both teams turning away from the rigours of the Premier League for this weekend. Mark Hughes will also be hoping to improve on his personal record against Chelsea having won just 5 of his 31 matches against Chelsea as a coach. Antonio Conte on his part will be looking to right the wrong of last season when his Chelsea side lost to Arsenal in the final of the Emirates FA Cup by going one step better than they managed last season but first he has to surmount the challenge pose by the Saints and make it to the final where one of Tottenham and Manchester United, who play on Saturday, will be waiting.
Antonio Conte took everyone one by surprise, including this writer, with his team selection on Thursday by choosing to play both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud together in attack in a 3-5-2 formation with Pedro playing as one of the three in midfield and it worked as we left Turf Moor with all three points on offer. Conte also made wholesome changes to the team that started the weekend’s win over Southampton with Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill, N’Golo Kante and Alvaro Morata the only ones to keep their place as Conte looked to freshen up the squad ahead of Sunday’s match at Wembley. Victor Moses came back in for Davide Zappacosta at right wingback and it proved an inspired decision by Conte with the Nigerian getting the winner at Turf Moor having also supplied the cross that Kevin Long put into his own net for our first goal. With Marcos Alonso beginning his three-match suspension, Emerson Palmieri came in for him for his first Premier League start since making the switch from Rome to London in late January and he had a decent outing before being replaced by Davide Zappacosta late on. Having missed the last match for what Antonio Conte termed a ‘tactical reason’, Antonio Rudiger played as the LCB with Gary Cahill switching to the centre in the absence of Andreas Christensen with Cesar Azpilicueta completing the back three. Gary Cahill did not give Ashley Barnes any breathing space on Thursday winning aerial duels after aerial duel and I expect him to continue in the team on Sunday, with Antonio Rudiger likely to be the casualty, because I think he’s brought a little bit of stability to the defence especially with Azpilicueta and Christensen alongside him. Emerson Palmieri has surely got some wicked crosses on him and he put in a fair share of those on Thursday before he was substituted. I expect him to continue to deputize for the suspended Alonso unless Antonio Conte has other plans with both Davide Zappacosta and Pedro other options for that position. Tiemoue Bakayoko made a rare start on Thursday night but like it has been for the most part this season his performance was hardly consistent all night hence I expect him to give way for Cesc Fabregas to resume his partnership with N’Golo Kante in midfield as I expect Conte to revert back to the 3-4-3 formation. Eden Hazard and Willian should also return to the starting XI to provide support for Olivier Giroud in attack. Willy Caballero, who’s kept goal in the FA Cup so far, should also come back between the posts. I don’t know what Antonio Conte will make of Alvaro Morata’s reaction to being substituted on Thursday night but whatever the Italian makes of that angry episode I still expect Olivier Giroud to start as he gives our attack more of a focal point than the Spaniard does.
Caballero; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Emerson; Willian, Hazard, Giroud.
Last Five Matches: WWLDW
Injuries: David Luiz (Knee) –Out; Danny Drinkwater(Groin) – Doubt; Ethan Ampadu (Ankle) – Out; Marcos Alonso (Suspended) –Out.
Mark Hughes kept the same eleven that started against Chelsea last weekend for the trip to the King Power Stadium on Thursday night but I expect him to make as much changes to his as the injuries and suspension in his squad will permit. But you never know with Premier League managers so I expect Antonio Conte will have prepared his squad to face the strongest possible Southampton eleven. Mario Lemina, who hasn’t featured since the 3-0 loss to West Ham United due to a combination of injury and illness, is a doubt for this match due to a back injury and Jack Stephens completes his three-match suspension on Sunday otherwise Hughes has a fully-fit team to choose from. I expect the back three of Jan Bednarek, Maya Yoshida and Wesley Hoedt to continue with Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand providing support as wingbacks. Having played every game since March, I expect Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to sit this one out paving the way for Steven Davis to return to the midfield to partner former Blues Oriol Romeu in central midfield. I expect to see a completely different front four on Sunday with Shane Long, Dusan Tadic and James Ward-Prowse likely to make do with a place on the substitutes’ bench with Hughes likely to go with a front four of Sofiane Boufal, Nathan Redmond, Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini. Mario Lemina is another option in central midfield or behind the striker if he’s fit enough to start
McCarthy; Soares, Yoshida, Hoedt, Bertrand; Ward-Prowse, Lemina, Hojbjerg, Tadic; Austin, Gabbiadini.
Last 5 matches: DLLLW
Injuries: Mario Lemina (Back) – Doubt; Jack Stephens (Suspended) – Out.
N’Golo Kante vs. Oriol Romeu
N’Golo Kante is the main man in the Chelsea midfield and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is turning out to be that man for Southampton but I expect the tough-tackling Dane to sit this one out and in his place I believe Oriol Romeu, who’d love nothing more than to get one over his former employers and teammates, will bring as much fight and determination as his Danish teammate but I expect N’Golo Kante to be ready for whatever.
Andreas Christensen vs. Charlie Austin
Hopefully the rest afforded our Danish Prince against Burnley on Thursday would make him rejuvenated for this battle with the injury-prone but highly effective Charlie Austin. The English striker possesses pace, power and the killer instinct in front of goal in equal measure and Christensen will have to go the extra mile to keep him quiet or at least limit his impact.
Eden Hazard vs. Cedric Soares
Although a lot of people has said Eden Hazard performance has tailed off in the second half of the season but a closer look at the statistics of his performances this year tells a different story altogether. Portuguese right back Soares likes to bomb forward when the need arises and he provided the assist for both goals at the Emirates last Sunday but with Hazard on the loose the Portuguese will do well to cut down on his overlapping runs. I personally cannot wait to see how this duel plays out tomorrow.
Antonio Conte and Mark Hughes will likely be going into this match with different objectives with the Saints in a relegation battle and although the Blues have a battle of our own –to qualify for next season’s Champions’ League –I expect Antonio Conte and his team to go all out for this one and make it back-to-back FA Cup final appearance hopefully with a better outcome than last season when we lost to Arsene Wenger’s team in the final. This will make for a decent viewing for the neutrals should Mark Hughes decides to go for it and make it as difficult for us as humanly possible but on current form and based on the qualities in our respective teams I expect Chelsea to have too much for the Saints to handle. Our next assignment after this weekend is a trip to south Wales to face Swansea City another relegation-threatened team a match I hope we’ll be going into on the back of securing our place in the FA Cup final after a win against Southampton on Sunday. Until next weekend, remember to Keep The Blue Flag Flying High and good luck to the team tomorrow, Ciao!
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Talksport
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