Will FA Cup Semi Between Chelsea and Spurs Have a Bearing on the Title Race?

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2017

Only one of Antonio Conte or Mauricio Pochettino will be laughing at Wembley on Saturday.
Only one of Antonio Conte or Mauricio Pochettino will be laughing at Wembley on Saturday.Associated Press

It's a funny thing, pressure. Nobody wants it. Everybody needs it. Too little of it can lead to stagnation; too much of it, implosion. Although not tangible, it can be all-consuming. You can't touch it, measure it or smell it. Yet you can feel it in the gut. A gentle lapping wave needing only a gust to drown you.

Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino have batted it back and forth from the baseline, too fearful of each other's game to risk being spiked at the net. Saturday's meeting between their sides, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, has become as much a microcosm of a Premier League season approaching its final furlong as it is an FA Cup semi-final. The two have become inseparable, like mittens attached to a kid's coat by string.

For the most part, it has evoked in its subjects polite dinner-party chatter, spoken through fixed grins. Politics has been discussed before drinks have been served. Tongues have yet to be fully loosened.

Pochettino's comment to reporters about Tottenham "not building in an artificial way" will likely delight his chairman, Daniel Levy, more than it will bother Conte. Likewise, the Italian's claim Spurs are not expected to win the league the way Chelsea are adheres to a script Pochettino has never deviated from. Rare is it a manager takes offence at a contemporary suggesting the work they have done has essentially put a club ahead of schedule.

Sunday's defeat to Manchester United left Chelsea just four points clear of Tottenham, with the champions-elect having lost two of their past four matches. The procession has got interesting all of a sudden, though it's probably worth remembering that Jennifer Lawrence still got her Oscar despite tripping and falling on the way to receiving it.

Still, a circumspect Conte was deflated enough to tell the media his side has only a "50 per cent probability to win the league." More than 50 per cent of him would be devastated if Chelsea blew it from here, even if he believes, as he stated, that Tottenham are the the best side in the country.

In any case, best isn't always best. As Spurs captain Hugo Lloris conceded in a quietly revealing interview with ESPN FC's Dan Kilpatrick on Thursday: "In football, there is no truth." Expect him to be booed by his own supporters on Saturday for coming out with the most Arsenal comment of the season. It would appear Albert Camus is not the only existential goalkeeper.

Pochettino has been no less modest than Conte. He has Chelsea down as favourites. His Spurs have won seven straight games in the Premier League, scoring 22 goals and conceding just four since losing to Liverpool on February 11. They have already eclipsed last season's total of 70 points with six games still to play, reducing a gap on Chelsea that was 13 points as recently as March 18. Without wishing to put it too crudely, the cockerel is more a dog on heat at the minute.

"I think it's not [us who are] favourites," Pochettino said, per James Gheerbrant of The Times. He continued:

If there is one favourite, it's more Chelsea because they are on the top of the table in the Premier League, the experienced players that they have and the manager they have.

We are talking of the team that maybe in the last five years has won European competitions, World Cups, a manager that won the league with Juventus in Italy.

The air is thick with a cordiality that will be conspicuous only in absence when a derby fast becoming the capital's most important, and bitterly fought, gets under way at Wembley. Niceties will not translate to the pitch. It is still embryonic in comparison to the Manchester or Merseyside derbies, but Chelsea vs. Tottenham has the feel of something that could prove as episodic as it is already gloriously vitriolic.

Not everyone has been doing an Amarillo Slim impersonation. Harry Kane doesn't have a face for poker. Like a kid in a swimming bath changing room who turns to his father to ask why the man disrobing next to them is so fat, he recently said to reporters: "It could be a big thing psychologically. Of course it's a different competition, so it's hard to say, but if we win, it might put a bit more doubt in their minds regarding the Premier League."

Although not quite as emphatic as one of his finishes, it was forthright enough from a player who is routinely candid without being myopic. Having hit 20 Premier league goals for a third season in a row and named on a six-man shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year, his confidence is well-founded. Kane is also one of the eight Spurs and Chelsea players in the PFA Premier League Team of the Season.

Few Premier League players, it seems, dispute Saturday's game represents the coming together of the two best sides in England.

Only Spurs' players will rue the fact the winners of Saturday's game at Wembley will be rewarded with another trip to Wembley (oh, the magic of the cup!) and not three points. There's nothing quite like singing "We're all going to Wembley" when you're already there.

On a literal level, Saturday will have no bearing on the title race. Kane is correct, though, in his assertion that it could give Spurs a huge psychological lift if they win. Which is nothing like the given it is being painted as by those of the opinion Diego Costa will never score again and the secret is out with regard to how to quell Eden Hazard

In his column for Chelsea's official website, in which the usually even-handed Pat Nevin tends to come across bluer than a Smurf, the Scot has argued pressure is a two-way street and that it is Spurs who should be feeling it more:

Everyone will look to Chelsea to see what the reaction is from the group. Shall they wilt or will that iron determination return in time? All perfectly understandable questions but there is one not being asked as much. Can Spurs keep up their incredible run and what will happen if they have an off day over the next few weeks? Remember Chelsea can still afford to drop a few more points, Spurs cannot.

He's not wrong in highlighting how, as neutrals, we allow ourselves to project results that in all likelihood will not happen. Whether subconsciously or otherwise, we do it to provide the line of best fit for the most interesting narrative.

For Spurs to take the title race to the wire, they probably need to win all six of their remaining matches. Although they look as though they would roll over Brazil of 1970, six wins from six would mean they finish the campaign with 13 consecutive league victories. Arsenal hold the record, with 14, but that was spread across two seasons from February 10, 2002, to August 24, 2002.

Spurs' run-in is Crystal Palace (a), Arsenal (h), West Ham United (a), Manchester United (h), Leicester City (a) and Hull City (a). If they win that lot and still fall short, to quote a favourite Woody Allen line: "My luck is getting worse and worse. Last night, for instance, I was mugged by a Quaker."

On the flip side to Nevin's blue-tinged coin, knowing there is no safety net could aid Spurs. As the author and philosopher Alain de Botton put it: "The feeling one has no time to get anything done provides the pressure that guarantees one does get some things done."

The reality is it's a bigger game for Tottenham than it is for Chelsea. If Spurs lose, they will almost certainly finish the season without a trophy. Chelsea will still be favourites for the title even if they are beaten at Wembley. Pochettino is also far too smart not to be aware he remains the best manager in the world never to have won a trophy.

A third defeat in five matches for Chelsea would not necessarily be seismic, but it could turn Conte's mild headache into a migraine.

There's no dispute Chelsea were wretched against Manchester United. A failure to register a single shot on target for the first time in over a decade is a tactical besting Jose Mourinho will want reading out at his funeral. Either that or he'll insist on having it spelled out to make up the world's longest and most expensive wreath. 

The idea, though, that Chelsea have been found out on the back of a couple of bad results after a season in which, since switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation, they have cruised like an automatic Bentley on Route 66 is more than a little fanciful.

Recognising that matching up Chelsea by going with three at the back is perhaps the best way to stop them, as both Mourinho and Pochettino have demonstrated, is not the same as having the players to carry out best-laid plans. Plenty of other managers have tried it and failed.

Ronald Koeman probably still wakes up in a cold sweat on recalling the 5-0 hiding Chelsea gave his Everton side, having seemingly taken umbrage at the idea imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Having Eric Dier keep an eye on Hazard may work on Saturday, but Hull City don't have too many holding midfielders coveted by Manchester United and valued at around £40 million, as reported by Matt Law of the Telegraph

If Chelsea hosted Southampton in the league on Tuesday on the back of securing an FA Cup final place, it would be hard to imagine Spurs heading into their trip to Crystal Palace a day later anything but seven points behind the leaders.

Sam Allardyce's in-form Palace have won five of their past seven Premier League matches. A professional northerner, despite being born in the Midlands, Allardyce would love to make it a hat-trick of southern scalps on the back of beating both Arsenal and Chelsea. 

The only top-six side Chelsea have left to play is Everton at Goodison Park. Romelu Lukaku's open audition to rejoin the club he left to move to Everton is one Chelsea could do without, but overall, their run-in could not be more charitable if Bob Geldof had handpicked it. Four of their remaining six league games are at Stamford Bridge. A trip to The Hawthorns to play a West Bromwich Albion side that has lost five of its past seven matches is their only other away day between now and the campaign's close. 

Southampton, who won the same fixture last season, can be awkward on their day—but then so can the in-laws, and most of us have come through numerous Sunday lunches together with only superficial psychological scars.

In the reverse fixtures this season against the teams they have left to play, Chelsea took a maximum 18 points, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one in the process. It seems an age ago since Chelsea needed two goals in the final 10 minutes to come from behind to win at Watford in just the second game of the campaign. Little did Michy Batshuayi know his equaliser after coming off the substitutes' bench would represent the highlight of his season.

Failure to beat any of Middlesbrough (May 8), Watford (May 15) or Sunderland (May 21) would represent the biggest blow-up since David Hemmings was inadvertently photographing murders in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 cult classic of the same name. Conte will be acutely aware he has got away with one if his team slips up against any of the aforementioned trio and still wins the title.

That said, late collapses are hardly uncommon. In 2011/12, Manchester United were eight points clear of Manchester City with six games left to play. At the start of that run, a 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic on the back of eight Premier League wins in a row was seen as more a blip than anything cataclysmic. It was the 4-4 draw with Everton, two games later, which Sir Alex Ferguson looks back on with solemn profundity.

"If I had to pick out one single match where we lost our title, it would have to be that game," Ferguson told United Review (h/t the Observer, via the Guardian).

Just a few seasons later, Liverpool were five points clear with three games to go and blew it. Steven Gerrard's slip, replacing Janet Jackson's as the most infamous in sporting history, was enough for Manchester City to sneak in on the blind side to win a second Premier League title, having again made a late run from deep David Platt would have been proud of.

Conte is no stranger to being pipped at the post, either. He enjoyed a brilliantly decorated career as a player, but it was one punctuated by, if not failure, disappointment.

With Juventus, he lost three UEFA Champions League finals. Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and AC Milan were all responsible for lonely nights pacing. A proud Italian, he has both World Cup and European Championship runner-up medals from his time with the national side.

Juventus were nine points clear at the top of Serie A in the 1999/2000 season when they lost four of their last eight games to gift Lazio the title on the final day. For six nights, their captain, Conte, did not sleep. If Chelsea fail to get over the line this term, expect him to report for pre-season training resembling an extra out of The Walking Dead.

Such disappointments have seemingly driven his perfectionist tendencies as a manager. Nothing is left to chance; complacency is seen as a personal insult. It should stand Chelsea in good stead.

There's something almost nostalgic about the fact a domestic cup game has generated hype of its own accord rather than being projected on to viewers by broadcasters who, with a straight face, will say pre-season games in far-flung corners of the globe are worth getting up early/going to bed late for.

FA Cup semi-final day used to be precisely that: a day dedicated to the world's oldest club competition. I remember travelling to Maine Road to watch Oldham Athletic play Manchester United as a kid in 1990 with a portable TV the size of a microwave on my lap because I was desperate to watch Crystal Palace's semi with Liverpool at midday.

It is a sad indictment of the FA Cup's standing that Saturday's game is seen as huge less because it's an FA Cup semi-final and more because of the impact it could have on the Premier League title race. It is a similar story in the other semi-final, albeit for different reasons. Headlines will likely be more about the beaten manager than they are the victorious team.

This singular obsession with the Premier League has made all of us no better than the type of nauseating bore who, after perusing the menu in a restaurant, says: "I won't have a starter; I'm saving myself for dessert."

In a week in which Ipswich Town and Newcastle United supporters celebrated one of English football's most admired characters on Sir Bobby Robson Day, it's worth pausing to remember one of his most famous quotes: "The FA Cup final is the greatest single match outside of the World Cup final—and it's ours." 

Maybe for one weekend only, the fight to get there should be worth the whole of our attention.