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Chelsea players celebrate Nemanja Matic's (L) goal (Photo: AFP)
Tottenham Hotspur’s FA Cup semifinal hoodoo continued on Saturday, as Chelsea thumped the Lilywhites 4-2 in a pulsating cup tie at Wembley Stadium, the Blues continuing their quest for a double in Antonio Conte’s debut season in England.
The Italian manager boldly rested his top-scorer Diego Costa and star winger Eden Hazard for the crunch clash, with Gary Cahill being replaced by young Nathan Ake as turned out in an unfamiliar XI. While Marcos Alonso and Thibaut Courtois returned to the starting XI after missing the last weekend’s Premier League clash against Manchester United, it was Michy Batshuaiyi’s presence at the tip of the attack that had Blues fans worried that Conte’s decision to rest his guns would backfire.
In the end, however, Conte’s decision to bring Costa and Hazard into the game on the hour-mark was vindicated as the latter played a key role in the win, scoring a well-taken goal to give Chelsea the lead and then assisting Nemanja Matic’s thundering shot which effectively sealed the deal.
Chelsea made a brighter start to the game despite missing several key players and deservedly took the lead through Wilian’s direct free-kick from the edge of the box in the 5th minute. Toby Alderweireld had brought down Pedro near the penalty area, got a yellow card for his mistimed challenge and was immediately rueing his indiscretion as the Brazilian winger put the ball into the net beating Hugo Lloris on his side of the goal.
Spurs, playing a 3-4-3 with Son Heung-min at right back, took their sweet time to grow into the game and once they found the equaliser via Harry Kane in the 18th minute, wrested control of proceedings. Christian Eriksen sent in a cross from the right and Kane had to stoop low to guide his header past Courtois from an acute angle.
With the momentum shifting in favour of Mauricio Pochettino’s side, Spurs came close to adding a second but Eric Dier’s header in the 36th minute flashed just wide of Courtois’ goal.
And as suddenly as they had scored against the run of play, Spurs then conceded a silly goal. Son, playing at right-back for the first time this season, needlessly slid in on Victor Moses inside the box to give referee Martin Atkinson no choice but to point to the spot. Willian stepped up and sent Lloris the wrong way to give Chelsea a vital lead two minutes from half-time.
The second-half began as the first ended, with Spurs dominating and they didn't take long to get back into the game. Eriksen was the provider again, sending in a cross from deep that Dele All finished on the half-volley past Courtois in the 52nd minute.
Conte sensed that Spurs were growing stronger and sent on Costa and Hazard on the hour-mark, replacing Batshuayi and Willian respectively.
And while Chelsea’s Spanish striker was kept under wraps fairly comfortably by Spurs, they switched off on a corner and once an unmarked Hazard got the ball inside the box, only one result was likely. The Belgian sent in a low finish into the far corner and with 16 minutes remaining it looked like Chelsea had put the fight out of Spurs.
And Hazard laid the ball off for Matic in the 80th minute, with the Serbian surprising all present with a thunderous first-time drive that cannoned in off the post to put the result beyond any doubt.
It is Chelsea’s first final since 2012 and the seven-time winners will face the winner of the Arsenal-Manchester City semifinal that takes place on Sunday.
Intense pressure had been on Conte and his men, who responded brilliantly and while the result has no direct bearing on the title-race (Chelsea lead Spurs by three points), the psychological effect cannot be understated for the momentum is well and truly in their favour now.
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