A DOUBLE MUST BE EXPECTED THIS SEASON, BUT FOR WHO?
Once in a Blue Moon
The League and FA Cup double remains the pinnacle in domestic football. Despite having become more common over the last two or three decades (largely due to refereeing changes and increased squad sizes for top clubs) they are still held in high esteem. The last team to deliver such a feat was Chelsea in Carlo Ancelotti’s debut season back in 2010.
With the FA Cup fixtures all falling in the second half of the campaign for the Premier League clubs, it provides its own clutch of fixture congestion even for teams without the greater challenge of a European push. League matches are forced into midweek, squads must be rotated and managers are often left with a tricky prioritisation issue. Silverware is ultimately what managers are judged on, but the club’s accountants know full well that a higher Premier League position is more lucrative.
Teams that are good enough to win the double are usually distracted by a run into the latter stages of the Champions League. Fortune with draws or a ludicrously deep squad is required to challenge long into the season on three fronts.
A revival of the Premier League’s top clubs has seen this change drastically this season. Four of the league’s top six make up the FA Cup semi-finalists, with fifth placed Manchester United having been knocked out in the quarter-finals.
Setting the Tone
The first semi-final – which will once again be held at Wembley despite the annual complaints – is league leading Chelsea versus their bitter London rivals, Tottenham.
Chelsea have wobbled of late, with a luckless defeat to Crystal Palace promptly followed by being thoroughly outplayed by Manchester United last Sunday. The defence has not kept a league clean sheet since January and injuries are starting to make the squad appear thin.
As a result, their once 10-point cushion has slipped to a four point lead over second placed Spurs. The Lilywhites have won seven straight in the league, despite recent injury to the talismanic Harry Kane. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have been rolling through their opponents with the certainty of a side on the cusp of doing something momentous. Kane has returned in typical goal scoring fashion, too.
A title race that was set to be a disappointment has suddenly been given an injection of life. A burst of energy like an early morning double espresso, the ‘race’ is alive and could yet swing either way. The long-time leaders are spluttering as the squad creaks, while their despised local rivals are charging towards them with the vigour of Manchester City’s pursuit of Manchester United in 2012.
Wembley could decide it all
A day out at Wembley was meant to be a treat for Antonio Conte and the Stamford Bridge faithful. The FA Cup has been a loyal companion of theirs in the Roman Abramovich years and – with the league as good as tied up – it was a luxury rather than a distraction from their league jaunt.
Their brace of defeats has, however, changed the whole meaning of the occasion. With a chest-beating Mourinho fresh in their memories, they must jump right back on the winning bike under the arch on Saturday. Talk of a wobble will quickly be forgotten should they do just that, particularly with a number of clearly winnable fixtures remaining in the league.
Spurs, on the other hand, can play with freedom. Freedom of a side on great form in the knowledge that the door to the league and cup will be flung open with victory on Saturday evening. Pochettino and Conte will have their own tactical manoeuvring to do, but they will both be well aware that this outing is about more than the chance of lifting the world’s oldest cup.
Momentum for the double?
Sport loves momentum. ‘Swings’ in momentum are discussed at every juncture. How much it really matters to the outcome of one match we cannot really tell, particularly when the professed unpredictability of it is why so many people follow this multi-billion pound business religiously.
If ever momentum could swing dramatically, though, it will be at the national stadium on Saturday. The winner of that match will take such a boost, while simultaneously handing their opponents the most vicious of undercuts.
The winner this weekend will take the upper hand in the league. Chelsea cannot afford defeat, but Spurs’ momentum would be painfully crushed and their confidence becalmed by succumbing to their noisier, more decorated foes.
A great collapse is beginning if Chelsea lose and the subsequent boost Spurs would take should leave them in great stead to notch an unlikely double. Victory for Chelsea, however, would simply reset the tracks for this season as their train nudges towards the final stop: a second double in the club’s 112 year history.