A Blue Up North previews Chelsea’s return to Wembley for their showdown with Southampton.
This weekend sees this season’s FA Cup semi finals at Wembley and on Sunday it’s Chelsea’s turn as they come up against Southampton.
The Blues go into this match after back to back away Premier League victories, including beating Mark Hughes’s side at St Mary’s Stadium last weekend. That match saw a lacklustre Chelsea side slump to a 2-0 deficit, but Olivier Giroud’s inspired substitute appearance created an extremely unexpected fight back as The Blues won 3-2.
With that turnaround and their solid victory at Burnley on Thursday evening, Antonio Conte’s side will surely have their confidence levels rising. And after making 6 changes to his starting line up between the 2 matches, Conte will have more confidence and belief in more of his squad. This will be key for Chelsea’s run in to the end of the season due to the manager’s previous unwillingness to play around with his team.
Add to this the fact that the Italian managed to rest key players on Thursday including Andreas Christensen, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Willian. This all should lead an upbeat feeling around the squad and a belief that they can come out on top, no matter who they come up against.
Southampton are having a tough season and still lie in 18th position, 4 points adrift of safety. Mark Hughes has brought in a steely reserve to their team and this has given them a better cutting edge. This has led them to scoring twice against Wigan, Arsenal and Chelsea so far under his reign, but they only held on to beat the League One leaders.
Conceding goals has been their biggest issue and that will need to be resolved if the former Blue is to save The Saints from relegation. However, that situation is not helped with defender Jack Stephens still suspended, while both Sofiane Boufal and Mario Lemina may also miss out after not being fit enough for their 0-0 draw at Leicester on Thursday.
Conte himself has a few decisions to make. Marcos Alonso is still out due to his suspension, but Emerson Palmieri performed very admirably in his place at Burnley for his first Premier League start for The Blues. And after Victor Moses‘s goal scoring showing, Davide Zappacosta will probably miss out, but he will be ready to replace either wing back from the bench depending on how they perform.
The key decision for Conte though will be which formation does he go with. The 3-5-2 looked very assured against a gritty Burnley side on Thursday, but with the likelihood that Eden Hazard and Willian will both slot back into the starting XI, we could well see a quick return to a 3-4-3.
This will also probably mean Cesc Fabregas will return to partner N’Golo Kante in a central 2. This is a situation that a number of sides have focused on this season, including Southampton last weekend as they built their lead during the first hour of play.
His other option will be to utilise these same players but with more of a 3-5-2 appearance. Eden Hazard could benefit from lining up alongside Olivier Giroud in attack, with the Frenchman’s ability to constantly challenge for and win the ball. Willian could be deployed more centrally than he usually is, especially as he loves to counter attack by running straight at the heart of the opposition’s defence.
With relatively free roles and opportunities for them to interchange, Hazard and Willian could move the Southampton defence around and help create gaps for their teammates to enjoy. Conte’s biggest concern with this though will be Ryan Bertrand’s attacking display against Zappacosta last time out. The manager may be loathed to leave Moses exposed to the former Blues’s marauding forward runs.
More importantly than formation and potential line ups could be the same issue that his side suffered from in last season’s Final. With belief flowing through his players, the label of fairly strong favourites and an opponent who really has nothing to lose, these are the classic ingredients for an FA Cup disaster.
This match may rest more on the Italian’s motivation of his players in the entire build up to kick off. Any amount of complacency displayed by those in Blue will be exposed to the fullest by a Mark Hughes motivated side. Right from the kick off, the Chelsea players will need to be focused and apply themselves fully to their task.
If Conte could only turn Wembley on a sunny Sunday afternoon into Turf Moor on a sunny Thursday evening, then surely Chelsea will be enjoying a return visit to the end of season showdown in mid May for a second time running.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue