Chelsea’s last chances of lifting a trophy stay strong!
Thanks to striker Álvaro Morata breaking his goalless streak and an unexpected headed strike from Pedro, Chelsea got the lead and then overcame Leicester’s tie with a 2-1 win in extra time over the Foxes at King Power Stadium.
Having to face a team that had been unbeaten in 8 home games, manager Antonio Conte did little rotation to the starting lineup that faced Barcelona last Wednesday. The changes made were Wilfredo Caballero at goalkeeper, Tiemoué Bakayoko in midfield and Álvaro Morata as striker in place of Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fàbregas and Olivier Giroud respectively.
Leicester boss Claude Puel followed suit by making only a few adjustments to the players that beat West Bromwich 4-1 at the Hawthorns last weekend. In place of the 4-2-3-1, the Frenchman adopted a 4-4-2 lead by strikers Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho, the latter rewarded for a good showing as a substitute to Shinji Okazaki - whom he replaced today - in the match-up against the Albions. There was also Marc Albrighton taking up Demarai Gray’s spot in Leicester’s left midfield slot.
At home Leicester attempted to start the match out on the front foot. As it has been a common sight in our domestic affairs, the hosts approached their lines and pressured our defenders and midfield to win balls in their advanced areas.
Chelsea, who have yet to find an answer those situations, gave in easily and so Leicester were able to find the first shooting opportunity of the game only 3 minutes into the game. Luckily for us it was midfielder Albrighton instead of striker Vardy, who was constantly pushing wide on Leicester’s attacking forays, taking the shot that was easily defended by Caballero.
The Argentinian would be called into action again 8 minutes, as Leicester’s plan to drive down the flanks and attack our box with crosses was an effective way to breach into our defence, but not much to create quality chances. At least those minor scares served to put us into rhythm and in motion to start attacking Leicester.
If on the ball Leicester were trying to exploit width with their overlapping fullbacks, out of possession the Foxes were not timid to tuck themselves into two lines of four and defend behind the ball. Already a Premier League speciality when facing teams such as Chelsea.
Even Riyad Mahrez, known mostly for the offensive prowess that has kept the eyes of Manchester City, Chelsea and other top teams on his services since the start of Leicester’s Premier League winning campaign was dropping back to help with defensive duty. Although his proximity to the rest of the team also helped the hosts engage in counters where thankfully they often lacked the final touch to get things ahead.
Leicester’s plan was effective to shut down Eden Hazard in yet another game where he seemed just not up to the occasion. Willian, who was on his usual hard-working self, was trying his best but his efforts were still not enough to breach for a clear chance.
On midfield, Bakayoko seemed to be on the same tune that lead to his dismissal against Watford. For that reason N’Golo Kanté had to turn the jokes of playing as two players in one into reality, as he did some great work on defence and offence both.
The best work however came from the wing-backs and Morata. For all their limitations, Alonso and Moses were doing quite well in stretching Leicester and putting in crosses after some good runs out on the sides of the field. Meanwhile, the Spaniard was working as a dual threat: first by finding good runs to attack the crosses flooding in, and then on his movements off the ball to draw defenders outside the box and help Chelsea in keeping up the chain of passes when moving forward.
By dominating possession, Chelsea were more “brainy” with the ball and tried to get it ticking instead of going for counters, which was Leicester’s plan once the visitors settled into the match. The opener however would come out of a inversion of roles, with the Foxes’ build-up turned into a lethal counter from the Londoners.
The ball stolen by Alonso on our defence was played to Willian on our right, who quickly took it in stride while bursting past two markers. But better than the run was his crisp pass forward to Morata, who was free to blow Leicester’s defence open with a run free from any blue shirts down left towards the centre. And on the 1v1 against Kasper Schmeichel, the Spanish was cold-blooded with a neat finish high and above the diving goalkeeper to wrap things up.
It was a deserved reward for Morata, whose ankles had been a constant target of Leicester’s defenders as they were clearly trying to take him out of the game on physical and mental aspects. Still the Spaniard showed a fortitude that had not been in display during all of these months, working his socks off and thus breaking his bad goalscoring spell.
Chelsea tried to use the favourable momentum to double the lead, pushing themselves forward in the closing minutes of the half. But even if they failed in doing so, the 1-0 lead was already a good result to bring into half-time.
Even if Chelsea ended the first half on a high note, Bakayoko did not. The midfielder who was already booked for a foul in the last minute of the term was subbed at half-time for Cesc Fàbregas.
Strangely enough the change made the midfield less cohesive than it was with Bakayoko as the Frenchman, even if not playing well, was still better in filling up spaces than his Spanish counterpart. Thus after a few minutes of back and forth between Chelsea and Leicester to start the game, the hosts began to grow in their offensive incursions.
Leicester’s route to goal was still the same from the first half, as in driving through the wings and taking crosses to the box looking for someone to attack them. They got very close to finding success on it with Vardy, who was left alone by Moses to attempt a headed shot at Caballero. But this was so poor that he left the play cursing himself and all family generations that came before him.
The 5-4-1 shape employed by Chelsea ended up inviting more pressure on the sides from Leicester, who were more than glad in exploiting them. We were still able to find some counterattacks as well but in another common theme of our season, the final touch on the move - be it a run, a pass or a shot - was always lacking. Especially from Moses who despite encountering loads of space to work on going forward, was regularly unearthing new ways of messing it up.
But if Chelsea faltered on their execution, Leicester were overflowing persistence in their search for a goal. Again, it took only one mistake - even if not from one player but rather by the team - for what had been a good defensive effort to fall apart.
Mahrez’s faint and run move on our left flank were enough to take Alonso out of his way, ensuing on a cross that was not cleared by Rüdiger just to fall on Vardy’s range. The striker was blocked once, and his teammate Vicente Iborra twice to keep the clean sheet intact. But on the lack of a proper clearance, the ball was still on the loose and ready to be pounced again by the Englishman who did not miss his chance this time to level the score.
From that point on it was back to the back and forth of previous times. Both sides were eager to wrap up the game with Chelsea getting close with Morata who unfortunately returned to his old “over-thinking” self on the occasion.
Effort was high, even if the bodies were already very tired. But with each side failing to score, the FA’s new rules for the cup had the game going into extra-time instead of replay (Hallelujah!).
Perhaps Conte have been secretly following tips from Chelsea fans as instead of taking off Eden, he picked Willian instead to leave the pitch in place of Pedro.
And without any time to rest between the second half end and extra-time beginning, both sides started to give in to tiredness. Neither Chelsea nor Leicester were able to string more than four passes forward with shots coming almost always from long range rather than the 18-yard box of either team.
There was however one player on the pitch who refuses to concede defeat even to his own body in Kanté. Maybe by drawing strength from whichever extraterrestrial forces that keep him well nourished and ready to take the pitch week in and out for Chelsea, the midfielder drove forward and assisted Chelsea’s go-ahead goal on a play that no one believed it would take place.
This may have been the first time in a 13-year professional career that Pedro, from all the might of his 1.69m in height, won an aerial challenge between three players at least 20cm taller than him in the box to score a winning goal for his side. No wonder said moment came from Kanté’s magical feet!
Back in the losing position, Leicester tried to drive strength to seek a draw for the second time today and take the semifinals dispute to penalties. However it was Chelsea who almost got themselves a third. Nevertheless, the 2-1 on the scoreboard was enough to take us forward as we will head to Wembley to face Southampton for a spot in the FA Cup finals next month.
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