And then there was one. Eliminated from every other trophy chase this season, Chelsea are down to the oldest major club competition in the world. It may have lost some (much) of its luster but it’s still the FA Cup and there’s still reason to be excited about it. Plus, it would be Chelsea’s 17th trophy since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003.
But to win it, first you must reach the final, and that’s the challenge that lies before Chelsea on Sunday at Wembley. For pleasant change, the usually-predictable Antonio Conte has options, thanks to the success of the double-striker’d 3-5-2 formation he deployed at Turf Moor on Thursday. The odds might still favor him trotting out his tried-and-(used-to-be)-true 3-4-3, putting Eden Hazard and Willian back on the pitch. But the duo of Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud upfront at Turf Moor might at least give him pause. If he goes with a single striker, again he has choices. Nominal first-choice Morata was guilty of a howler of a miss, while La Barbe Magnifique turned in yet another convincing performance.
After a rest, we must presume that Cesc Fabregas will reclaim his midfield job alongside Kante. But Bakayoko did nothing in Burnley to dissuade Conte from selecting him again. At left wing-back, Emerson stood out midweek but doesn’t have many miles under his belt, while journeyman Davide Zappacosta can do a solid if unspectacular job as Marcos Alonso sits out the second of his three-game suspension.
In the opposite dugout, Mark Hughes may not be too fussed about it all. Southampton are in a desperate fight to play a seventh consecutive year in the Premier League and it’s not going well. They looked on course for maximum points last Saturday before Chelsea’s thrilling two-goal comeback denied them all three. Then they drew with Leicester City on Thursday. That leaves them four points deep in the relegation zone. Hughes indicated he’s going to field a changed side. That’s code for his second-choice players getting a game in.
“It’s a quick turnaround to Sunday and a few of the boys looked a bit tired and leggy out there so we’ll probably freshen it up and make changes.”
That’s exactly the kind of thing that has knocked some of the shine off of what used to be the highlight of the English football season. But if Southampton are willing to give some ground, Chelsea would be foolish to not take it and march into the FA Cup Final. Gift horse, mouth and all that.
On Thursday, Chelsea won two in a row for the very first time in 2018. Sunday is a glorious opportunity to win a third. Make it so.
Date / Time: Sunday, April 22nd, 2018, 15:00 BST; 10:00am EDT; 7:30pm IST
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London, England
Referee: Martin Atkinson (Mike Jones is the VAR official) — this will be Atkinson’s third Chelsea match of the season. He was in charge of our 0-0 Carabao Cup draw against Arsenal at the Bridge (another VAR match) and our September 0-1 loss at home to Manchester City. One of the league’s most experienced referees, Atkinson isn’t afraid of his yellow card, pulling it out ten times at Old Trafford in December and nine times at the Etihad just two weekends ago. VAR ref Mike Jones booked nine men last weekend in the Championship bout between Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers. Play clean, lads.
Forecast: Warm with a decent chance of rain. Temperature should be around 21°C (70°F), winds 21 km/h (13 mph). The chance of rain showers is 40%.
On TV: BT Sport 1 (UK); FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes (USA); SONY TEN HD (India); elsewhere
Streaming online: BT Sport Live (UK); FOX Soccer Matchpass (USA); SONY LIV (India)
Chelsea team news: Marcos Alonso serves the second game of his three-match suspension. As far as we know, Danny Drinkwater (groin) is still unavailable. David Luiz is nursing his knee back to health and £2.5m-man Ethan Ampadu is out (broken ankle.)
Southampton team news: Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, midfielder, is out with an Achilles strain. Centre-back Jack Stephens is out (suspension.) Jan Bednarek, scorer of their second goal last weekend, could feature in a back three again.
Last time: As thrilling as last weekend’s 3-2 win over these same Saints was, last season’s 4-2 win over Spurs at this same stage was even better. There’s a Willian free kick special, there’s a big impact from Hazard, and an even bigger thunderclap from Matic, in what was probably his final highlight in a Chelsea shirt. Enjoy!