What did Chelsea do right in their victory over the Saints to set up a final date against former boss Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Strikers Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata were on target as Chelsea reached their second successive FA Cup final with victory over a fighting Southampton.
Giroud – signed from Arsenal on deadline day in the winter transfer window – broke the deadlock 28 seconds into the second half, expertly stepping past challenges from Saints’ defenders and rifling home from close range.
Morata – who replaced Giroud late on – sealed matters less than 90 seconds after being introduced with a fine header from his eternal provider Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross.
Southampton had their fair share of chances, but will live to rue not converting them as they shift their focus back to staying in the Premier League.
Victory for the Blues means they will now contest the final against former boss Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United on 19th May.
We analyse the three things Antonio Conte got spot on en route to an ultimately comfortable victory against Mark Hughes’ relegation-battling side:-
#1 Starting cup-specialist Giroud ahead of Morata
In the build-up to the game, Conte would have been faced with a selection dilemma on whether to start his big-money, but recently out-of-sorts, striker in Morata or turn to his January recruit in Giroud.
The Frenchman certainly had the stronger claim with his double against the same opponents last week to overturn a two-goal deficit as well as a good record against the Saints, having also scored against them in Arsenal colours earlier in the season to save a point for the Gunners.
In addition, he was in the bracket of ‘been there, done that’, having won the FA Cup thrice in the previous four seasons with his former club.
Morata, on the other hand, had been in terrible form in 2018 thus far, scoring just twice and guilty of making a meal of clear-cut opportunities.
He was also not in his manager’s best books when he publicly displayed his frustration at being subbed off in the victory at Burnley in midweek.
So it was no surprise to see Giroud getting the nod for the big occasion. He didn’t disappoint. The 31-year old was a constant threat to the Saints’ back-three and his aerial prowess made him a constant force to deal with.
Uncharacteristically, it was his feet that provided the breakthrough for the London side seconds into the second half.
He picked up the pass from Hazard, skipped goal-side to avoid the challenge of Maya Yoshida, followed by another challenge-evading touch away from goal. His quick thinking also resulted in goalkeeper Alex McCarthy sprawling to the ground in anticipation of a shot.
The Frenchman, thus, had an opportunity to shoot and he made no mistake. Chelsea, though not always on top, got the lead and it led to the game opening up.
Giroud’s selection was justified and Conte, who has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, must be given credit where it was due.
#2 Hazard operating as a second striker after Willian’s departure
Chelsea began the day with Conte’s standard 3-4-3 formation, with Willian and Eden Hazard supporting Giroud on either side in attack.
Fleet-footed Hazard started on the left and though he made many inroads into the Southampton defence and midfield three, the Belgian star was unable to provide the decisive punch to break them down in the first half.
Chelsea were counter-attacking at speed thanks to Willian’s drive, but they needed Hazard to make a direct charge at the Saints’ defenders, something he was being starved of by playing from wide.
A tactical tweak from Conte solved that issue, taking Willian off for Tiemoue Bakayoko and giving Hazard permission to take up the second striker’s role just behind Giroud.
Though the decision to take off the brilliant Willian was questionable, Conte’s ultimate objective was justified as he wanted Hazard to be more involved.
He put Fabregas on the right-hand side and slotted Bakayoko in the Spaniard’s place. The move seemed to have worked, as Hazard began to take charge of the attack by making a direct approach towards Southampton’s three-man defence.
He took them on one-on-one, completed dribbles and had better sighters at goal than in the first half.
Fabregas’ lack of pace on the counter meant that he was replaced by Pedro soon after. Conte had got his tactical game spot on, although Willian may not be on the same page as his boss.
#3 Keeping faith in Emerson Palmieri
With Marcos Alonso saving a retrospective three-game suspension, Conte was forced to hand a starting debut to Emerson Palmieri as a direct replacement at left wing back in the victory at Turf Moor on Thursday.
He impressed with his direct runs and crosses and capped it off with an assist for Moses’ winner. But a cup semi-final is a different occasion, altogether, especially with the manager under pressure after a failed defence of the Premier League and a Champions League thrashing at the hands of Barcelona.
Like most managers, Conte would ideally have gone for experience by starting Davide Zappacosta at right wing-back and probably slotting Moses at left wing-back to make up for PFA Team of the Season member Alonso’s absence.
However, he banked on Emerson’s form and rewarded him for his display against the Clarets with another start. Once again, the Italian re-paid his manager’s faith with a decent, if not spectacular, performance.
He made dashes down the flank, taking Cedric Soares with him and allowing the likes of Hazard and Willian to exploit the space created by his movement.
He kept Chelsea’s attacks going with some crisp passes and also sent teasing crosses into the penalty area.
In addition, he was able to neutralize the dangerous Mario Lemina, who has the ability to run past defenders one by one when on the ball.
Though he may not have had enough game time to dump Alonso off his starting line-up, Emerson certainly proved that he is a more than reliable back-up and can be called in as a direct replacement should situations like suspension or injury to Alonso arise.