Conte knows heat is on the Blues

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte shouts from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England, on April 16, 2017.
Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte shouts from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England, on April 16, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

While he says Chelsea are underdogs after recent blip, Spurs are clearly the form team

"Tottenham now are the best team," lamented Antonio Conte at Old Trafford.

An attempt to put pressure on the very hot Spurs or simply a statement of fact? Today will tell.

Chelsea are English Premier League leaders, a team defeated only four times in five months in all competitions, possessing a track record of beating Tottenham and having a trophy-winning pedigree, but they may go to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-finals as underdogs.

That is a reflection of their slight wobble, but also of Spurs' brilliance. Mauricio Pochettino's men have reeled off eight straight wins, scoring 28 goals. They were also the first team to defeat Chelsea's strongest side following Conte's autumn switch to 3-4-2-1.

January's emphatic 2-0 victory offered inspiration for others. Given Spurs' fine start in their 1-2 loss to Chelsea in November, when Pedro Rodriguez's equaliser on the stroke of half-time was crucial, they have arguably enjoyed the better of this season's league meetings.

  • KEY STATISTICS

    15

    FA Cup goals Tottenham have scored.

    1

    FA Cup goal Chelsea have conceded.

    1 in 8

    Tottenham victories at Wembley.

    2

    Tottenham victories in their last 16 games against Chelsea.

And this is that oddity, a Cup game that nonetheless has the potential to be the most significant fixture of the season for the league campaign. It could have considerable implications for momentum and morale alike.

It could also render either double winners. While the semi-final line-up is star studded, today's winners should be favourites in the May 27 showpiece.

First, though, both sides face sizeable obstacles. Chelsea should welcome goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois back, while others will have overcome a virus. Yet Conte's damning acceptance that Manchester United showed more desire, ambition and motivation when his side had no shots on target highlights the need for a swift improvement.

Certainly Diego Costa, who has gone six club games without a goal, could do with rediscovering his autumnal excellence as he faces England's most frugal defence.

The burden on Eden Hazard has become too sizeable and, after Ander Herrera's expert man-marking job on the Belgian, it will be interesting to see if Pochettino adopts the same tactic.

He probably will not. A safer assumption is that the Argentinian will revert to the 3-4-2-1 formation he used to defeat Chelsea in January. If he wanted to mimic Jose Mourinho's approach, he could push Dele Alli further forward to act as a second striker.

That carries only one problem: It would compel Pochettino to omit Son Heung Min, scorer of five goals in four games and a player at the peak of his game.

But that is a luxury he has. Tottenham have form. They have looked faster and fitter of late. Chelsea may be reliant on Conte's strategic sense and their own resolve. Their only clean sheets since January have come in the FA Cup, but a capacity to score one more than most teams has served them well.

Yet they have lost four times to the rest of the top six already. A meeting with the best threatens to be their biggest test.

CHELSEA V TOTTENHAM

FA Cup s-final: Singtel TV Ch109, tomorrow, 12.05am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'Conte knows heat is on the Blues'. Print Edition | Subscribe