Antonio Conte rang the changes against Burnley and they worked so well we may see a repeat performance on Sunday, in the FA Cup semi-final against Southampton. Emerson Palmieri played left wing-back, Pedro played as a roaming midfielder and, most importantly, Conte paired Oliver Giroud and Alvaro Morata up front. They have complementary skills, with Giroud’s target-man ability and Morata willingness to work off the ball, and it worked almost immediately. It was apparently the first time since 2011 that Chelsea started with two “pure” strikers.
Sky Sports claiming this is the first time Chelsea have named two pure strikers in a starting XI since 2011 (Drogba & Torres) #cfc— Liam Twomey (@liam_twomey) April 19, 2018
No doubt there will be some personnel changes for Wembley (Hazard won’t be on the bench, for example) but in the post-match press conference Conte allowed that we may see this sort of setup again in the future, maybe ever as soon as the next game.
“This could be an option for Sunday or the future. This was the first time we try it and we had good responses. It could be an option. When you have players to show you the desire to sacrifice without the ball it is great. We surprised them with two strikers and they showed that.”
Surprising the opposition is all well and good, but the one thing Chelsea had to avoid was another first half like at St. Mary’s. Conte spared no blushes in his assessment of that performance (despite the comeback), but he was much more pleased today.
“For sure today we showed a great spirit, we didn’t show that in the first half against Southampton because we played badly, a disaster. Today it is a great pleasure to see my players with a great commitment and desire on the ball.
“To see Giroud and Morata, to play in this way and see good combination and link with them and press with and without the ball, this is the right way to have satisfaction in the future.”
Although playing dual strikers was a success, Morata did miss a breakaway one-on-one with Nick Pope in the second half. He was substituted shortly afterwards for Eden Hazard and didn’t hide his frustration with himself, gesturing at Burnley fans who had a dig at him and throwing things around on the bench. Conte liked it this reaction and stressed that he didn’t take the player off because of the howler — it was simply time for some fresh legs and it sounds like Morata might have been the one to come off regardless of that chance. Whether this means that Morata is being saved for Sunday or Conte wanted to give the Giroud-Hazard combo a brief test-run remains to be seen.
That said, Conte has stressed the importance of Alvaro (and the rest of the team) finishing their chances, and while it didn’t come back to bite us this time, Morata’s latest miss sure brought back unkind memories of winter.
“No. Honestly. Around 70 minutes I thought that it was better to put fresh strength with Hazard. He is a player that has different characteristics to Morata. I am pleased for their performances, played very well.
“Alvaro must be angry, because when you have the chance to score you have to score and it can change your confidence. He was angry with himself for his missed chance. But I have to see his whole performance and it wasn’t possible in the past to play with two strikers. They did a great job, as did the whole team.”
Conte had much less reserved praise for man of the match Victor Moses, who scored one goal and also forced an own goal from center back Kevin Long.
“Victor Moses, with an assist and the winning goal, was the star man, but everyone performed admirably against tough opposition. Back-to-back wins is the perfect preparation for Wembley on Sunday.”
It was refreshing to see this kind of performance from Chelsea after such a barren New Year. Unfortunately, as Conte acknowledges, it probably comes too late to salvage a place in the Champions League. Spurs are five points ahead with four games to play and even if Chelsea win out, we would need them to lose twice (taking into account their sizable lead in goal difference as well).
“I’m not sure. The only way to keep a hope from now until the end. It won’t be easy. There is a gap of five points with Spurs. If we think in the past we have missed great chances to get closer to them. Now we have to get three points every game. It won’t be easy, we have to try and for sure tonight I saw a great team spirit, we must be pleased because we performed very well with a great team spirit and will to fight.
“If you give them a bit of space they are ready to put this long ball and be dangerous with the second ball but tonight we played very well with and without the ball.
“I think Giroud and Morata played a fantastic game with a great sacrifice without the ball and we forced them to play this long ball. “
Now it’s on to the FA Cup and Sunday’s semi. Asked for his reaction were Chelsea to win the Cup but finish fifth in the table, Conte more or less dodged the question.
“We have to go game by game. We have the semi-final and five days ago we were 2-0 down and played a disaster. We must pay great attention and play with the right will and show that you want to play another final in the FA Cup.
“This would be the second in a row and this would be great, for me and the fans. Now it is not right to make consideration for the season.
“I have to work and then we see what happens.”
In a way, Thursday’s performance makes you wonder what might have been it if had all come together earlier. Those kinds of questions are unanswerable, though. All we can do is be happy that in beating Burnley at Turf Moor, which is no easy task, Chelsea are finally finding some form again. Back-to-back wins for the first time in 2018.