Conte can bow out on a high

Conte and his play­ers keen to make amends for last sea­son’s fi­nal de­feat

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Dominic Fifield at Wem­b­ley

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.

Com­po­sure

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.

En­ergy

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.

Pros­pered

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.

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