As Pedro capitalised on a Kasper Schemichael error to head Chelsea into the semi-finals of the FA Cup, a statement had been made by those donning the black and blue kits. Going away to Leicester is never easy, a task which becomes more difficult when you add in the mixture of it being a cup tie with a place at Wembley at stake as well as it coming off the back of a Champions League defeat at the hands of Barcelona. It would have been easier for Chelsea to crumble in this type of pressure situation, heaping more pressure on a man already on the hottest seat in England in Antonio Conte. But the players rallied, and having lined up a date with Southampton in the next round, they may have just thrown their manager a lifeline.
A battling performance in a difficult atmosphere usually points to the fighting spirit within the dressing room. Had Chelsea travelled this far only to succumb to yet another disappointing loss, having suffered far too many of those already this season, the writing would have been on the wall for Conte. “His players gave up on him, they refused to carry out his instructions.” That’s what it seemed like during the heavy defeats to Bournemouth and Watford a couple of months back, anyways. Even a sublime equaliser from Eden Hazard in the latter failed to break a smile on Conte’s depressed face. It looked as if the Italian had thrown in the towel, while the players were seemingly obvilious towards their manager’s inevitable fate.
Then Barcelona happened. In the first leg of their second round tie, Chelsea left the Spanish giants scrambling as they ran ragged over their opponents. Barca were smothered by an energetic Chelsea backline, while N’Golo Kante was flanked by hard-workers Willian & Pedro to prevent any tiki-taka movement from the Catalonians. It was a near perfect performance, with the lone error from Andreas Christensen proving pivotal as Barca eventually triumphed over both legs in large part due to Lionel Messi’s away goal. But the effort shown by the players, and their willingness to do as their managed told them was eye-opening. It was a far-cry from the carefree attitude two weeks prior when they allowed the likes of Gerard Deulofeu to run all over them. Now here they were standing up to Messi and co.
It was a similar type of feeling in the deflating losses to both Manchester clubs, where Conte’s negative tactics came in for much criticism, and rightly so. However, the players acted out each instruction accordingly, buying into their manager’s strategy. They continued to show they were fighting for Conte, even if his departure in the summer seems like a foregone conclusion. And yet, football is a fickle game where recent results can make people forget about past disappointments. Witnessing the respect the former Juventus coach still has from his squad might be enough to save him when the end-of-season meeting is called.
The performance in the Camp Nou received tons of plaudits from fans and media alike, a rare accolade for a side that loses 3-0. But Chelsea played well on the night, stringing passes together, exhibiting an offensive display that wouldn’t look out of place in the far more attack minded La Liga. The effort may have been in vain as individual mistakes cost them once again, yet that further reinforces the cohesivenss of the side on that night. Chelsea could easily have emerged victorious had their luck turned out different, but consistent errors will get you punished against a side like Barcelona. Despite their elimination, there was a glimmer of a moral victory for Chelsea. Instead of getting pushed aside by a dominant Barcelona, as many would have expected, they went out fighting with their pride still intact. That’s more than can be said about the likes of PSG and Porto who left Europe’s premier competition with a whimper.
Leicester brought their best effort last Sunday, and Conte wouldn’t have expected any different. This is a side who are good enough to avoid being dragged into the plentiful of teams involved in a relegation battle, while the numerous sales as a result of their recent Premier League success has left them with a squad who aren’t up to the level required to break into the top six. It’s left them chasing their own tail for the remainder of the year with the FA Cup becoming the sole concern for them. It wasn’t an easy task for Conte’s side to pick themselves up following the Messi-inspired defeat in midweek, but they battled until the end, even through a gruelling extra-time, and were rewarded with a well-deserved semi-final berth.
Chelsea have little margin for error as they approach the final few weeks of a season where finishing in the top four is now the main objective, a bleak ambition compared to last year’s title-chasing hopes. Nonetheless, the reality is such and the Blues will need to keep fighting as they have done in the last few weeks.