There is no tournament quite like the FA Cup.
Famously the world’s oldest and most renowned club competition, adorned in history and the epitome of English football heritage. For Chelsea, it is a love affair dating back to the 1970 victors of Peter Osgood and Ron Harris, right up to the modern triumphs led by John Terry and Frank Lampard.
After last year’s shortcomings in the final, there has been that extra bit of fire in the Blues’ bellies, shown by their sound run so far. Overcoming Morecambe, Luton Town and Barnsley may represent a more favourable route, but reaching the quarter-final in any circumstance deserves plaudits.
Sunday’s opponents were Sheffield United, bottom of the Premier League and under interim leadership, following Chris Wilder’s sorry yet foreseeable departure. Would it be another blue day at Wembley, or would the Blades cut short the Blues’ cup run?
When the team news came in – the correct one, for that matter – it was noteworthy that Thomas Tuchel had made nine changes from the Atlético Madrid victory. Necessary rotation or a deliberately weakened selection? You cannot please everyone.
Perhaps Chelsea can be pardoned for starting slow, having come off the back of their biggest and most intense win under Tuchel so far.
But the Blues looked sluggish, tired, complacent, allowing a Sheffield United side who had one win in their last six, to get into the game and really compete for a place in the final four. Chances were many, but few really threatened Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The opening quarter of the game demonstrated Chelsea’s problems in a nutshell. Controlling possession, but not taking advantage of it. Venturing into the final third, yet not creating nor taking clear-cut chances.
Tuchel was unusually quiet and reserved on the touchlines, cooped away in his dugout in contrast to the vocal Paul Heckingbottom.
But out of nothing, Chelsea capitalised – though not by their own accord.
Ben Chilwell hit a half-shot-half-cross into the box, and Oliver Norwood was unfortunate enough to put it into his own net. It was not a stunning goal by any means, though a vital advantage in the tie.
Chelsea had chance after chance to double their lead, but their lack of cutting edge proved costly once again. Half of those missed opportunities came from Christian Pulisic who, although was one of the Blues’ brightest sparks, should have scored either side of the break.
The wasted chances would not go unpunished for long, and the hosts were lucky that the Blades had forgotten their shooting boots in Yorkshire.
David McGoldrick – one of Chelsea’s many arch nemeses – squandered a glorious header, while Oli McBurnie could not beat Arrizabalaga in goal.
Chelsea still did not look outstanding, yet remained in control of the game with their slim lead. In typical Chelsea fashion, it took until 86 seconds were left on the clock to decide the game once and for all.
An effective break saw Chilwell cross it into Hakim Ziyech, the Moroccan taking a majestic touch before smashing it past Aaron Ramsdale. For a player who has been so disappointing since the turn of the year, two goals in his last two games is proof that the talent and quality persists for the wizard of west London.
Truth be told, it was not a pretty performance, but Chelsea got the job done.
The aim on Sunday was to reach the FA Cup semi-final, and they did exactly that, extending Tuchel’s record unbeaten run to 14 games. Considering Kurt Zouma and Mateo Kovačić were the only survivors from Atlético, which was only four days prior, you can forgive Chelsea for not going full throttle in west London.
Next up? Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s ruthless, rampant, winning machine of a team lie in wait for Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final.
There is no denying that the Citizens were the one team everyone wanted to avoid, but that does not mean Chelsea cannot compete with them. Tuchel himself has bred a winning-mentality side, injecting a new lease of life and energy into a once depleted squad.
Chelsea’s best performances have not come in the FA Cup, but if their Tuchel era form is anything to go by, they can perform against the big guns.
Since the German arrived, the Blues have defeated Tottenham, Atlético Madrid and Liverpool, all of the top calibre that City will be classified in.
The Blues have proven that they are good enough to win football games, and that translates into trophies. It would be daft not to suggest they cannot win silverware, when they have not even lost since the latest managerial change.
Chelsea can win the FA Cup, and they will certainly continue with that mentality when they make their way up Wembley Way. They will – and should – fancy their chances in what will be a difficult game, and they know what they are capable.
The players know they can win it, the fans know they can it, and most importantly of all, the manager knows they can win it.
“I think it’s the most important thing that we compete for every competition that we play in,” Tuchel explained. “This is what it is about at Chelsea: if we play in the league, we play for the top stakes. If we play in the Champions League, we play to win every game. If we play in the cup, we play to win every game. We compete for the maximum.”
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