For the first time since 1999, the top two teams in the country meet at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final. There is a vast importance to this fixture, and not just to decide who will get through to a Cup final. This could also have a psychological effect on the rest of the title race, too.
But sometimes football takes second place. This semi-final won’t be totally about the best teams in the Premier League battling it out in the national stadium, but rather tinged with a sense of sadness as football – and, at Wembley today, perhaps Tottenham in particular – has lost another one of its own.
Ugo Ehiogu, a Tottenham coach who worked with many of the side’s young stars, died on Friday morning, and the outpouring of grief for a man who, at 44, was only just making his way as a coach, was immense.
The game will still be played, with a thread of emotion weaved into its fabric.
Pre-match, the tactical talk will revolve around Chelsea’s defence, though. As Gary Cahill won’t be fit enough to start, that means Kurt Zouma – or perhaps even an emotional Wembley return for John Terry – could be on the cards. Unless Antonio Conte decides to throw a curveball and veer away from the back three that’s served him so well since October, you get the feeling that this could be yet another one of those times when Chelsea’s defence will get a tweak.
And as we have seen so far this season, that’s what spells trouble for the Stamford Bridge side. Having lost Marcos Alonso to a virus, and Thibaut Courtois to an ankle injury just before the Manchester United game, the defence was thrown into chaos. Both should be back this time, but the leadership qualities of Cahill will be a miss. Perhaps that’s why John Terry’s name could well find itself on the teamsheet.
If injuries and replacements have given Conte plenty to think about, they’ll have been on the mind of Mauricio Pochettino, too. The Spurs coach matched up back three with back three at White Hart Lane earlier in the season, when Tottenham became the first side to beat Chelsea in the Premier League since they lost 3-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. That shows there is a pragmatic streak running through the Argentinian coach, and one makes tweaks to Spurs’ lineup as likely as tweaks to Chelsea’s.
In that game in north London back in January, Pochettino lined up with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker as the wing-backs. Both were perfectly suited to that role, using their searing pace to drive Chelsea’s wing-backs into more defensive positions for most of the game. The effect of that wasn’t just to nullify Chelsea’s attacking width, but it also stopped Eden Hazard and Pedro from being as effective as they normally are.
When Alonso gets into a wide attacking position, that means Eden Hazard has the perfect foil to enable him to cut inside: the opposing full-back has to either track Alonso and leave Hazard free to drift into the centre, or he tracks Hazard and allows Alonso to be played into a perfect crossing position.
From an attacking point of view, however, Spurs’ back three that night allowed Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to drift into the space either behind the wing-backs or between them and the central midfielders. The deeper end of that space is exactly where Christian Eriksen got joy, whilst the far end is where Alli did: Eriksen dropped deep towards the midfield where Chelsea’s centre backs found it hard to track him, enabling him to cross from deep positions, whilst Alli found the same space closer to the goal, in between Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta, where he scored two goals.
This game may not hinge on exactly the same formula, however. Both coaches will have been thinking about the last game, and Antonio Conte will probably have some sort of plan to stop Alli and Eriksen from wreaking havoc by dropping into places where they are hard to track. Similarly, Mauricio Pochettino may not be too confident in making the exact same tactical tweak twice against the same opponent.
Indeed, it might well be more likely that this game hinges on how Chelsea replace Gary Cahill at the back, and whether or not Tottenham know how to exploit this defence which has been so porous of late. Since that game in January, Conte has had to contend with a defence which has become less solid, whilst Pochettino has seen the rise of a new player to star-status within his squad. Both of those things could be key.
Conte’s two choices in defence to replace Cahill (assuming he doesn’t revert to a back four) are John Terry and Kurt Zouma. Neither of whom are the paciest of players, but Terry brings a leadership and big-game experience which may be hard to ignore in this situation. Tottenham, on the other hand, will surely have to find a space for their man on form, Son Heung-Min.
Looking forward to the game, the most interesting part, then, might just be seeing what the managers do with their lineups. But as Chelsea’s greatest weakness is clearly their defence at present, and Tottenham’s greatest strength is their attack – and the pace of Rose, Walker and Son – this might be the first time in a long, long time that Spurs go into a game against the league leaders as favourites. And it’s more than just a place in the final at stake: momentum for the rest of the title race is on the line, too.