And before you know it, it’s that time of year again. The sun is shining, the trees are blossoming, the air smells sweet, and football fans over the age of forty are complaining about the FA Cup semi-finals being staged at Wembley. In fairness, they have a point. Having grown up with the oddly exciting sight of games being played at Villa Park, Old Trafford, Highbury or Hillsborough that didn’t involve those home teams, there’s a strangely anti-climactic feel of a semi-final taking place at Wembley. Even moreso when one of the final four has been playing at the national team’s stadium all season anyway. Still, since Manchester City have essentially taken the ball home in the Premier League a month before the season’s end, we were left with three sides for whom the cup remained the last opportunity to salvage something from the season. For Southampton, it perhaps came as a welcome distraction given their current plight. Modern football fans tell us that the FA Cup is meaningless these days, but for Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino and, to a lesser extent, Mark Hughes, the world’s oldest cup competition offers a slice of solace. But first, four must become two…
Mourinho proves his mettle when it comes to the crunch…
It speaks volumes for Jose Mourinho’s reputation that Manchester United sit second in the lead, albeit sixteen points off the top, and found themselves in a domestic cup semi-final, and yet there are whispers that his powers are on the wane. The victory over Tottenham at Wembley, not beautiful by a long shot, was at least a timely reminder that, beyond all the noise and posturing, Jose gets shit done. In fairness neither side covered themselves in glory in what was a fairly drab semi-final, but given that United came into the game as outsiders, despite sitting six points above their opponents in the league, and yet managed to control the game and dictate the play, suggests that rumours of Mourinho’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. This is Manchester United 2.0 – efficient if not particularly exciting, business-like if a little banal. They have a first-team squad full of, what should be, irresistible attacking talent. This season consistency has evaded them, and at Wembley further question marks were raised over some of Mourinho’s key men. The centre-back pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones simply doesn’t inspire confidence, and the ease with which Deli Alli opened the scoring for Spurs was testament to that. Romelu Lukaku was, once again, found wanting on the big stage, stumbling over the ball when played into good positions, and snapping at chances rather than surveying his options. Fortunately, the Portuguese manager was able to entrust his big-game players to step up to the plate. Paul Pogba, whose sparse season highlights were drastically boosted by his one man show at the Etihad a fortnight ago, offered an all too rare showing of strength and determination when wrestling the ball from Mousa Dembele, before providing an inch perfect cross onto the head of the diminutive Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez himself is yet to live up to the hype surrounding his January move to Old Trafford, bar his display in the second half at Manchester City, but his equaliser marked his eighth goal at Wembley, and his fourth in three FA Cup semi-finals. Put simply, the Chilean will always deliver on the big occasion, though few of his contributions will have been as audacious as beating Jan Vertonghen in the air. It was good work from Sanchez again that set up the winner, with a passage of play that summed up the tools currently at Mourinho’s disposal. With Tottenham’s defence backing off, Sanchez worked a pass into Lukaku, only for the Belgian to miscontrol it, fortunately Ander Herrara, Mourinho’s aggravator-in-chief was on hand to slot the loose ball past Michel Vorm. Having lost a lead just twice all season in all competitions, it seemed unlikely United would concede their hold on a cup final place, even with the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli to deal with. The last half an hour of the match was far from pretty – niggly fouls, time wasting and classic shithousery all reared their ugly heads, but in the end Jose Mourinho’s side did what Jose Mourinho’s sides do best – they got the job done. You wouldn’t bet against them doing the same in the final.
…while Pochettino and Spurs still lack a knockout punch.
This was supposed to be Tottenham’s year. Having spent the season as tenants at Wembley Stadium, it seemed fitting that this Spurs side – their best since the 1991 FA Cup winners – would finally lift their first trophy under Mauricio Pochettino. They went into the semi-final with Manchester United as firm favourites – thanks in no small part to their dominant display against the same opposition in January – but, much like last year’s ill-fated semi-final against Chelsea, it once again proved a bridge too far. They started the game in characteristic fashion, all guns blazing and looking to take the game to United. The opening goal was typical of what we’ve come to expect from this team, all swift attack and precision passing. A long ball from the back found Christian Eriksen making a nuisance of himself down the right hand side, and his swinging cross bamboozled United’s backline and fell perfectly for the arriving Alli to tap home. That goal should have been the platform for Spurs to go on and secure their first FA Cup final appearance since they last won it, and on another day Kane, Alli and Eriksen would have added to the North Londoners tally. The inability to build on their best spell of the match would, predictably, come back to haunt them. As soon as Sanchez equalised, after uncharacteristically wasteful play from Dembele, the momentum of the game changed, and the old doubts began to creep into the back of Spurs minds. On another day Eric Dier’s deflected daisy cutter may have bounced an inch further to the right and rolled in off the post, but as it was the woodwork denied Tottenahm with what would be their last clear cut chance of the game, coming in first half stoppage time. Once Herrera had put United in the lead and Mourinho’s side began to shut the game down, the issues that have undermined Pochettino’s reign once again came to the fore. The introduction of Lucas Moura for Ben Davies suggested Tottenham’s manager was looking to throw caution to the wind, though further changes will hardly have induced fear in the opposition – Victor Wanyama and Erik Lamela arguably providing fewer defensive headaches than Dembele and Heung-Min Son. That, in a nutshell, is why Spurs are still some way from becoming a side that will regularly compete for silverware. The longer the game went on, the more Mourinho’s spoiling tactics proved effective, and the fewer ideas Tottenham seemed to have. The long and short of it is that Spurs lack a Plan B. Harry Kane is undoubtedly one of the deadliest strikers in the Premier League, but finding an effective alternative to him has, so far, proved a fruitless search. Fernando Llorente hasn’t found the form that convinced Spurs to spend £15m on him in the summer, while Vincent Janssen is currently struggling for goals on-loan in Turkey. Behind Kane, Alli, Son and Eriksen can be a devastating front three. Each one has had a productive season, though all three are prone to ineffectiveness, and despite Eriksen’s assist and Alli’s goal, their influence against United was found wanting. Beyond the starting eleven, Tottenham desperately lack game-changers. Moura is yet to fully adapt to English football, and Lamela can be hit or miss. The presence of £30m Moussa Sissoko twiddling his thumbs on the bench spoke volumes. Daniel Levy is often praised for his fiscal responsibility and nous in the transfer market, but one suspects the window of opportunity to build a trophy winning squad is beginning to close. Tottenham’s best players can only buy into the project for so long, when suitors across Europe are more than willing to offer a bigger pay packet.
Conte’s misfiring frontline find themselves double-struck…
A year ago to the day, Antonio Conte had masterminded his Chelsea side’s victory over a Tottenham Hostpur team that had provided the sternest test of the chasing pack in the league, in the FA Cup semi-final, putting the Italian coach on the cusp of a domestic league and cup double in his first season at Stamford Bridge. Fast forward twelve months and the former Juventus manager has all but checked out in West London, with Chelsea meekly limping to a finish outside the Champions League places in the Premier League, with the FA Cup remaining the club’s solitary hope of silverware come the end of the season. What’s changed in the intervening year? Clearly Conte’s passion for the job at Chelsea has waned, perhaps because of a perceived lack of ambition on the part of owner Roman Abramovich who no longer entertains the prospect of outspending the clubs rivals, or perhaps because he genuinely feels he has taken the club as far as he can – the ease with which the Blues were dispatched in the Champions League by Barcelona suggesting they are some way off challenging for Europe’s biggest prize. On the pitch Chelsea have certainly lacked a cutting edge, thanks in no small part to the sale of Diego Costa earlier in the season. The mad Spanish/Brazilian bastard was told in no uncertain terms at the end of last season that Conte would no longer be requiring his services, despite a return of 59 goals across three seasons. It wasn’t just goals Chelsea were losing out on, however. Costa’s presence up front drove defences to distraction, and the lumbering hitman was as adept at winding his markers up and inspiring indiscipline as he was at hitting the back of the net. With Romelu Lukaku opting to join former nemesis Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, Chelsea were practically forced into the purchase of Alvaro Morata. The Spanish striker hit the ground running, however, and by October it looked as though Conte had got the right man to assist the Blues in their title defence. Since then, Morata’s Chelsea career has stuttered. A crippling dip in confidence and form have often seen him benched in favour of Eden Hazard playing as a false nine, and Conte was forced to court every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Peter, Ashley and Andy) in the January transfer window. Eventually Olivier Giroud was signed from Arsenal, in hope more than expectation that he could operate as more than a supersub. In reality, his contributions in a Chelsea shirt have largely been from the bench, and between him and Morata, the two have scored just five goals since January. A cup tie against relegation threatened Southampton provided the perfect opportunity for one or both to add to that tally, and so it proved. Giroud’s goal, all fleeting footwork and gallic grace, was a moment of sublime invention that lit up an otherwide cagey affair. Just a minute after half-time, the French forward picked up the ball on the edge of the area and slalomed past three challenges, wrongfooting Saints keeper Alex McCarthy in the process, before toeing the ball into an unguarded net. The boy’s got good feet for a big man, and his latest wondergoal offered a reminder that Giroud is more than a lamppost with symmetrical features. Morata was introduced for the final ten minutes and needed just two of them to seal the game for Chelsea, his a goal typical of his time in England. The cross provided on a plate by compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta, the finish a bustling, bullish header into the bottom corner. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for this pair of strikers – whether they’re able to lift Chelsea back into title contention is doutbful, but both have plenty to offer a top Premier League side. Goals are their business, and for once business was good.
…while Southampton’s spend another afternoon bemoaning their luck.
An FA Cup semi-final in which they’re the underdog couldn’t really have come at a worse time for Southampton. With four points separating them from safety, Mark Hughes would unquestionably have preferred to be playing a league game and attempting to accrue points with the season now in its final furlong. For supporters though, this was perhaps a welcome distraction, and having witnessed their side take a two goal lead against the same opposition last weekend, there was certainly cause for cautious optimism as they made the journey down Wembley way. Much like the rest of the season, however, this sunny Sunday afternoon would prove to be another frustrating one. With Dusan Tadic starting on the bench, Saints certainly lacked a creative spark in the opening stages, and had to make to with withstanding an early onslaught from Chelsea before coming into the game, though it wasn’t until Giroud’s wondergoal that Southampton finally came out of thier shell. A double substitution just past the hour – arguably an hour too late – introduced Tadic and Nathan Redmond to proceedings, and all of a sudden Saints were back in the game. After a ten minute spell of making ground in the attacking third, the chances began to come, and but for a bizarre save Redmond would have equalised – the winger’s 25 yard effort looking to squirm under the body of Willy Cabellero, only to bounce away to safety. Charlie Austin was then harshly ruled to have fouled the Chelsea keeper as he looked to carry the ball over the line, and the former QPR man then hit the post after Morata had doubled Chelsea’s lead. Not for the first time Southampton’s luck had evaded them when, on another day, they could have scored a couple and taken the game to extra time. Given their relationship with fortune in recent weeks – losing a two goal lead at home to Chelsea in eight minutes, conceding a late goal at Arsenal having fought back to 2-2, having to employ Mark Hughes – it’s unsurprising that it evaded them once again at Wembley. Fortune, of course, favours the brave, and Hughes’ line-up was anything but. Ultimately, Southampton will end the season with what they deserve which, on current evidence, is relegation.
So in lieu of the FA Cup final providing us with a surprise inclusion or even a pair of exciting teams to watch, we do at least have a healthy slice of #narrative. With Antonio Conte looking likely to leave Chelsea in the summer, he’d surely love nothing more than to put one over Jose Mourinho, who’s emerged as his only real rival during his spell at Stamford Bridge. The Special One, meanwhile, will be desperate to add to the two trophies he’s already won at Manchester United, and is never one to shy away from offering his former employers a reminder of what they’re missing. Chances are it’ll be a dour game, but at the very least the cup final promises drama.