With Chelsea’s place in the domestic season’s showpiece safely secured, Blues legend Pat Nevin writes about players on the rise and an auld acquaintance…
I am always quick to remind any younger Chelsea fans just how big a deal it still is to reach an FA Cup final. It is easy to get blasé about turning up to Wembley decked in blue, especially if this is the 19th visit to the new stadium (20 if you include a league visit to Spurs there). Other clubs can only dream of such a record and some dream of just getting there once every 20 years.
The domestic showpiece is still a day to savour and remember. No matter how it is rated in relation to the Premier League and the Champions League, players never forget a Wembley cup final. Having lost an FA Cup final I still look on it as an incredible day, even if it is with mostly negative connotations. In fact even the Full Members Cup final we won while I was at Chelsea in a 5-4 thriller against Man City is still etched deep in my mind, even accepting it was a very minor trophy.
So I am already looking forward to that day in May and particularly because you can see the form coming back throughout the side. Eden Hazard was given the man-of-the-match award against Southampton on Sunday and I wouldn’t argue with that for a second. He had a very difficult time as recently as the match down at St Mary’s, even though he scored a goal, but since then he was sparkling against Burnley and at Wembley, he was gliding past opponents with spectacular ease.
Even if everyone else is playing averagely, Eden Hazard on that sort of form can win a game on his own. I really hope he is still in that sort of shape when he walks out to face Jose’s side. He wasn’t surrounded by average performances at the weekend, in fact there were some at the top of their games.
Certainly Olivier Giroud was making sure he did everything to keep his place after Antonio plumped for him in front of Alvaro Morata. Once again he was strong while tying up the majority of their three-man back line, most of the time on his own. On top of that there was his goal which was one of the most memorable goals of his career. The footwork was outrageously good. I am sure there will be still shots of him balanced and on his feet while four or five opponents are on their backsides unable to get a challenge in. I recall photos of Maradona doing the same, so that isn’t bad company to keep in a footballing sense.
So once again Antonio’s decision paid off. When he brought on Olivier at Southampton he scored two, he stuck with him and he notched at Wembley. Even when he was replaced, Alvaro Morata was very quickly on the scoresheet with yet another trademark header from his habitual supplier, Cesar Azpilicueta. For the manager this is a dream scenario, both strikers scoring and for the first time in a while, a clean sheet to boot.
It is strange to see just how a couple of weeks can have such an effect. Willian, who has been faultless for a while, seems to have gained an extra gear, as witnessed when he left a trail of defenders in his wake after a number of brilliant runs from midfield on a sultry afternoon in north-west London. Emerson was another who caught the eye as he cruised up and down the left-hand side in Marcos Alonso’s place. Considering how dependable Marcos has been, it is pretty surprising to see how little changed in his absence. This is not a negative comment towards him but a positive point about Emerson. He is exceptionally comfortable with the ball at his feet and his crosses with that left foot are looking better and better each time he plays.
For all this, I was probably as chuffed for Gary Cahill as I was for anyone else in the side. A very proud Englishman, he clearly hasn’t given up on securing a place in the World Cup squad and after that display, Gareth Southgate will certainly have him back at the forefront of his mind once again. His attitude and commitment have been faultless while he has been out of the team, just as you would expect from such a good pro. He will however be first to thank his two defensive wingmen. Cesar is as dependable as ever and Antonio Rudiger once again showed his deep love of the art of defending.
There was a moment early on when Shane Long, the famously speedy Southampton striker, put his proverbial foot to the floor in an attempt to out race Antonio. Unfortunately for him the German seemed to have a Porsche engine to call on when needed and cruised by the crestfallen Irishman. Long didn’t even attempt to out run him again in the match, he knew it was pointless. This made a big difference to the Southampton game plan as he is considered their out ball and suddenly it was hardly an option. Rudiger as we all know has some serious pace to burn.
So the path to the final has been negotiated and we know exactly what is waiting for us there. It is one of the great match-ups in English football and a fitting end to the season in that the title chase wasn’t even vaguely exciting for most of the last three months and maybe more. Tactical ideas will already be being considered by both managers and that battle alone would make it worth watching intently.
I wonder what former Chelsea and Man United manager Tommy Docherty will be thinking. Ninety years old today, he is one of the great names and most entertaining people in the annals of football history. I thought I got on great with him and once introduced him to my dad, another Glaswegian. I met Tommy months later and mentioned that my dad had been delighted to meet him. The Doc’s answer? ‘Yes I was chatting to him on the phone last night.’
I was gobsmacked. Tommy had stayed in touch with my dad after what I thought was just a brief introduction and no more. A great of the game and a Chelsea legend well remembered today.
So a season that could have easily petered out is still very interesting. With an FA Cup final to look forward to, there is also watching Liverpool and Tottenham getting ever more jittery as we keep winning in the league and they now can’t afford more slip-ups.