Chelsea can still finish the season covered in post-trophy lift ticker tape glory, despite a disappointing campaign overall. Goals from strikers Olivier Giroud and Álvaro Morata earned Chelsea a 2-0 win at Wembley on Sunday, and a trip back to Wembley on May 19th to battle against José Mourinho’s Manchester United.
After the experimental 3-5-2 on Thursday, Chelsea returned to the more familiar 3-4-3 for this one. Despite the short turnaround, there were no changes to the back six while Olivier Giroud also retained his position. Eden Hazard and Willian took their usual spots on either side of the center forward and Cesc Fàbregas slotted in next to N’Golo Kanté. In a small but welcome surprise, Wilfredo Caballero, King of the Penalty Kick Shootout, was retained as the “cup goalkeeper”.
Southampton made a few changes as well, deploying two strikers this time with Shane Long and Charlie Austin looking to annoy and grind through the Chelsea defence.
Southampton started out, like many a Chelsea opponent has this season, by trying to force mistakes in short building with some pressing. But Chelsea beat that easily by lobbing the ball over their stretched lines (have to press collectively to be effective!), and so Saints decided to sit back and absorb pressure instead.
That wasn’t quite enough to contain Chelsea’s attacking efforts, but in another constant theme of the season, Chelsea’s lack of any true aim, coupled with several last-ditch tackles and blocks, meant that the Blues wasted multiple excellent chances.
When Chelsea were able to break, Willian’s lightning speed caused havoc, but his misunderstandings with Giroud resulted in final passes going astray with regularity. A sign of how they have yet to build a proper connection. Giroud wasn’t on the same page as the rest of the team for good portions of the match, though that’s likely to improve with time and practice.
In possession, the left flank was a frequent target for the Blues, with Emerson and Eden combining well on that side of the pitch. Saints right back Cédric Soares was not faring too well with these threats, and the mildly impressive centre back Jan Bednarek often had to cover for him once again.
At times, even Southampton touched the ball, usually after a turnover or a breakdown ended minutes of continuous pressure from Chelsea, but the Blues dealt with this minor threats well enough, especially thanks to the omnipresent N’Golo Kanté.
The only thing missing was a goal or two, as Chelsea completely dominated all the ball retention and attacking stats, taking 9 shots to Southampton’s 2. Yet of these 9 attempts, none were on target.
Things changed very quickly after the break. Barely a breath has been taken when Giroud danced through the defence, left them all flailing on the floor, and scored the FA Cup goal he promised he would score. Thirty seconds had passed, if that many.
With the one-goal advantage, Chelsea were no longer as relentless as they were in the first half, and Southampton looked to take the initiative and force the issue. Chelsea still posed plenty of threat (with the customary poor finishing letting them down), but Saints were now a force to contend with as well.
Mark Hughes introduced Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic to add more threat to his side (Long and Højbjerg made way), and Conte responded by adding an extra midfielder in Bakayoko. Conte chose to take off Willian, who was none too happy with the decision. Regradless of the decision, Willian’s reaction was unfortunate and unprofessional.
So’ton’s attacking changes brought increased pressure, but the Chelsea defenders and goalkeeper were stepping up when they were needed most. Referee Martin Atkinson’s friendly whistle then saved Caballero’s blushes, too, after Charlie Austin was adjudged to have pushed the Chelsea veteran in the air and into the cavernous net.
Chelsea then reverted to the 3-4-3 with Pedro replacing Fàbregas, while Hughes went all in by giving striker Manolo Gabbiadini a runout instead of a center back. Morata for Giroud completed all the substitutions with 10 minutes to spare.
Barely a minute after coming on, Morata made the most if his situation thanks to a lovely cross from Azpilicueta. Seen this before; it never gets old!
A crucial second goal was a sight for sore eyes and the tie was effectively over.
Ten minutes later (and five added-on), though not before Southampton hit the post and Chelsea wasted a handful of counter-attacks, the tie was officially over as well.
A little less than a month from now, on famous May 19th, Chelsea will play Manchester United in the FA Cup final, both teams looking for minor redemption in terms of tangible success. Should be a good one!
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