Saturday April 22, 2017
Here was the contest we dared to hope for, the matching of the two best teams in the country in an exhilarating bout at this famous old venue. The only regret was that this was not the final, for it would have been one of the greats.
Still, there is a tradition now of great Wembley semi-finals and this one will live long in the memory; perhaps as long as 1991 and that Paul Gascoigne goal, even if it will be less fondly recalled by Spurs.
For it even had a strike which, if not quite as astounding as that one, was one of the better moments this stadium had witnessed.
Nemanja Matic finally settled this compelling affair with a goal from 30 yards which will accumulate YouTube views and likes for years to come.
For Tottenham, there will inevitably be regrets. They are becoming that delightful team which tends to come up short in the final analysis. That may seem harsh, given their improvement and the fact that they have been the most-consistent side over the last two years. Yet, trophies pass them by and they missed an opportunity on Saturday again.
And perhaps not just this opportunity, of an FA Cup final. Even with no points at stake, the momentum of the Premier League race shifted back again in Chelsea’s favour.
It always seemed too hard a task for Tottenham to reel their rivals back in but eight consecutive wins allowed them to hope. Now, with Chelsea buoyed by this win and Tottenham punctured by defeat, the course is surely set.
And Chelsea prevailed whilst initially holding back their best hand. Antonio Conte gambled outrageously, leaving Diego Costa and Eden Hazard on the bench for the almighty clash.
And yet, cometh the hour, with the game finely poised at 2-2, he could reach for stars and send them on. Ultimately, they would be decisive and an extraordinary FA Cup and Premier League double now looms for Conte in his first season in English football.
Without Hazard and Costa, you suspected Chelsea might start on the back foot. Yet they defied that wisdom and fairly flew into Tottenham, barely allowing the team famed for its pressing a moment on the ball.
Pedro was an extraordinary irritant and simply buzzed all over the pitch. In midfield there was a veritable heavyweight clash of tag teams; Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kanté taking on Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama.
A more ferocious contest of better midfielders doesn’t exist in the UK. Yet in those opening 15 minutes, the Chelsea pair simply overwhelmed their opponents. The balance would change later, but as statement of intents go, Chelsea were utterly decisive in their early attitude.
And just four minutes in Chelsea had already exerted their superiority. Pedro, set on his way by a Michy Batshuayi flick was sprinting away on goal only to be hacked to the floor unceremoniously by Toby Alderweireld.
Willian and David Luiz sized up the free kick, twenty yards out. The former struck it and Hugo Lloris hesitated, feinting to his right as the ball flew past him to his left.
The tone was set: Chelsea dominant, Spurs in retreat. And yet, in a moment the momentum would switch. From a rare Spurs foray and a corner the ball worked its way back to Christian Eriksen.
His cross was sublime but Harry Kane’s stopping header, a triumph of opportunism and skill, was even better. Even if Kante had failed to close – for once – and Nathan Ake failed to mark, it was some goal.
And now Tottenham were in ascendant, flying forwards with wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Heung-Min Son. The space in behind Chelsea, always a target for any competent team, was being exploited to the full. Chelsea held firm; but only just.
Antonio Conte’s team were creaking. Jan Vertonghen’s lovely cross was met by Eric Dier, who headed just wide on 36 minutes.
But, then, just as before, the team dominating invited their opponents back into the game. Chelsea gathered a degree of poise, were maintaining possession again and worked the ball out wide for Kante to play in Victor Moses.
He broke dangerously into the box yet, even so, there was little need for Son’s rash diving challenge: it virtually begged for Moses to fall over him, which he duly did and the penalty was awarded. Willian stepped up again and again fooled Lloris, this time pulling the ball confidently to the goalkeeper’s right.
Yet, like a compelling heavyweight bout, each blow invited an equally-compelling counter punch. Neither competitor was willing to yield. And when necessary, the significant players, stepped up to the mark.
On 51 minutes, it was Dele Alli. Until then, he had been quieter than might be expected, flitting a little. Yet when Eriksen spotted him making a trademark run from deep, he knew precisely the ball he need. Somehow, with little width and minimal back-lift, the Dane delivered a ball inbetween Luiz and Azpilicueta with exquisite precision.
Yet, again, his excellent delivery was surpassed by the finish. Alli, sprinting, meeting the ball first time, directed it past Courtois. It conjured memories of Frank Lampard doing the same for Chelsea; Steven Gerrard for Liverpool.
Now Spurs believed again. Ake dived in on Alli a minute later and probably just got enough of the ball for Martin Atkinson not to award the penalty. But the mood had changed once more.
Chelsea needed a lift. On the hour it came. Held back for the finale. Diego Costa and Eden Hazard were no unleashed on the game, with Batshuayi and Willian giving way.
Pochettino responded in kind. On came Kyle Walker. Finally we had the best starting elevens, injuries notwithstanding, for both teams. Ultimately the contest was too compelling to compromise. It was as though the respective managers had been sucked into the occasion.
Tottenham looked the stronger but no one was giving any quarter. Hazard and Costa were struggling to impose themselves and yet their threat lingered always. On came Cesc Fabregas for Pedro. Extra time loomed yet Conte’s hand had been played.
Moses flew forwards and a corner was won. Fabregas floated it goal-wards and Walker headed clear but only to Hazard. A posse of Tottenham players flew at the Belgian to close him down.
Yet somehow he managed to strike through them all and past Lloris. He raced towards his fans, sliding to celebrate as his team-mates embraced him. Fifteen minutes of normal time remained.
Chelsea might have feared the onslaught. And yet, on 80 minutes, a strike worthy of a wonderful contest settled the game. Hazard, refusing to give up on a seemingly lost cause, chased across the Tottenham, area and touched the ball to Matic.
Thirty yards out, with little danger imminent, Matic simply connected first time with the most-exquisite timing possible. The ball flew, past defenders and past Lloris into the far right hand corner.