Conte can bow out on a high
Conte and his players keen to make amends for last season’s final defeat
For Chelsea, a season that has underwhelmed could yet yield major silverware. Antonio Conte was back to his animated best on the touchline as his side, inspired by Olivier Giroud’s wonderfully pilfered opening goal and Eden Hazard’s effervescence, eased past Southampton to secure their passage to a second successive FA Cup final.
For a while it was as if the Italian’s grouchy recent demeanour had been washed away, his club’s support bellowing his name in joyous celebration with all the uninspired displays on the pitch, and the political grumblings off it, briefly forgotten. Conte and his players are intent on making amends for last season’s defeat against Arsenal in the final. Manchester United, and José Mourinho, await here next month. If the Italian is to leave in the summer, as is widely expected, then he could still do so with a bang.
Giroud had scored twice against these opponents in the Premier League just eight days ago, the visitors conjuring an unlikely three-goal comeback in the last 20 minutes at St Mary’s, so there was a certain inevitability he would scar Southampton again. He made his mark emphatically 30 seconds after the interval. Cesc Fàbregas’ lofted pass forward had been optimistic, but Hazard collected on the volley ahead of Jan Bednarek and, once grounded, kept his head to flick the ball towards the penalty spot where Giroud had evaded Mario Lemina in anticipation of a pass.
The composure demonstrated thereafter by the Frenchman, in the tightest of spaces was startling. A touch with his left foot took the ball away from Maya Yoshida, a second with his right cutting back outside to bypass Cédric Soares as he slid in. By the time the striker had calmly flicked in his finish with the outside of his right foot as he stumbled, Alex McCarthy and Bednarek had joined Cédric on the turf in the goalmouth. The whole exchange had been played out at pace, the forward’s control and subtlety of touch too much for Southampton’s backline.
Chelsea were the more progressive team throughout the first half, with their brighter moments usually conjured by Hazard. He had left Lemina on the turf early on before belting a shot just over the bar would later be denied from close-range by Yoshida’s recovery challenge and would test McCarthy from long-range in the latter stages. It was Hazard’s gallop through the middle, and his perfectly weighted pass behind Wesley Hoedt, that liberated Willian inside the opening 10 minutes. The Brazilian, cutting back infield, curled a shot that kissed the top of the crossbar. Giroud would be more ruthless from closer in.
The concession demanded a response from Southampton, a team whose chances of survival in the Premier League diminish with each passing weekend and whose attacking intent had been cautious at best up to then. In truth, they should have prospered almost immediately, Hoedt’s diagonal pass freeing Shane Long through the middle with Charlie Austin’s dummy having disorientated Chelsea’s rearguard.
Yet the Irishman’s first touch was heavy, betraying a striker with two goals to his name in 49 appearances for club and country. He was still cursing the miss when summoned ashore later.
Mark Hughes’ introduction of Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic injected more energy into Southampton’s approach and, as the game became far more frenetic in the latter stages, the threat of an equaliser briefly loomed large. Willy Caballero, initially wrong-footed, did wonderfully well to deflect Redmond’s shot from distance behind as he fell. He was far less convincing from the corner, spilling a high ball over the line under pressure from Austin only to be saved by the referee’s whistle. When the goalkeeper was beaten, six minutes from the end, Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief after Austin’s attempt back across goal from beyond the far post struck the woodwork and bobbled away.
Yet, by then, the tie appeared to have been settled. Álvaro Morata had only been the pitch a few minutes when César Azpilicueta flung over the kind of cross from which Chelsea forwards have prospered in recent times. Morata had eased away from Hoedt and his downward header bounced up and into the net with McCarthy aghast. Hoedt’s strange mishmash of a performance would at least end with a goal-line clearance to deny Morata a second.
For the second year in succession, Chelsea’s season will culminate in an appearance at the FA Cup final. The chance for Conte to go out on a high remains.
Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata scores during yesterday’s FA Cup semi-final against Southampton at Wembley.