Like their opposition at Wembley this afternoon, Chelsea have reached two cup finals this season, but they blew a big opportunity in midweek to finish fourth in the Premier League.
After a goalless draw against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in March the gap in the table between themselves and their London rivals was five points. But despite Tottenham taking only a point from three consecutive league games last month, a considerable gap of four points remained following Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Newcastle while Spurs won consecutive league games for the first time since January. With two games remaining it’s going to be a tall order for Chelsea to finish in the top five this season.
Liverpool have already won silverware this season and will be keen to complete an FA Cup and League Cup double. Chelsea have the Champions League Final to look forward to later this month, but today’s FA Cup Final is their only remaining chance to celebrate domestic success in a season during which they changed their manager when they were three points outside the top four after 27 games.
Their 5-2 FA Cup quarter final win over Leicester City took interim manager Roberto Di Matteo’s record to four wins in all competitions in his first four games. The Blues scored another five goals in the semi-final against Spurs at Wembley last month, even if the second goal didn’t ever appear to cross the line. Didier Drogba opened the scoring that day after Liverpool’s Andy Carroll had netted the winner in dramatic fashion a day earlier as Everton’s dream of an appearance in the final was shattered.
Liverpool have struggled for form at home all season, and one point from their last four games at Anfield has included back-to-back 1-0 defeats. Hardly the form to take into a cup final, although a Luis Suarez hat-trick against Norwich last weekend marked their eighth league win on the road.
My prediction: A close encounter that Chelsea are likely to edge and make up for a league campaign where they’ve always been there or thereabouts, even under Andre Villas-Boas, but have always tended to miss out when it matters most.
Chelsea were one of the last teams to seal their place in the quarter finals of this season’s FA Cup, but they can become the first to reach the semi-finals this afternoon.
They entertain Championship opposition at Stamford Bridge for the second consecutive round, and Leicester City will be looking to do at least as well as Birmingham City who forced a replay after a 1-1 draw last month.
The Londoners, currently in fifth place in the Premier League were in Friday’s Champions League draw after beating Napoli 4-1 after extra-time two days earlier, and should be in the hat for one of four places up for grabs to feature at Wembley on 14/15th April.
The breaking team news as I’m writing is that John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, who all started in midweek are excluded from Chelsea’s starting line-up today. Chelsea play the first of their final ten games of their Premier League campaign at Manchester City this Wednesday, then host Spurs next Saturday, followed by the Champions League quarter final first leg a week on Tuesday.
Leicester, who won at Norwich City in the fifth round, are currently mid-table in the second tier of English football, eight points outside the play-off places for promotion to the top flight. They have the same busy schedule as Chelsea in the coming week or so, going to Blackpool this Wednesday, followed by Hull City at the King Power Stadium next Saturday.
Roman Abramovich reacted to Chelsea falling 20 points behind leaders Manchester City in the Premier League by sacking manager Andre Villas-Boas a couple of days before their FA Cup fifth round replay at Birmingham City.
It’s the second time in three years that Chelsea have gone into the FA Cup fifth round with a different manager from their previous game – In 2009, Ray Wilkins was in charge as caretaker boss while Guus Hiddink oversaw proceedings from the stands - Tomorrow night it’s Roberto Di Matteo’s turn, as the newly appointed interim manager until the end of this season. It will be the former Chelsea player’s first game back as manager since he was sacked just over a year ago by West Brom with whom he won promotion to the Premier League.
A three point gap has emerged in the Premier League table between Chelsea and the top four with eleven games remaining, a fairly straightforward gap to overturn it can be assumed. However, while the FA Cup offers the chance to lift some silverware this season, the club’s ambition at the start of the season would have been firmly foucusd on winning either the Champions League or the Premier League (or even both). And since qualification for next season’s Champions League isn’t guaranteed yet, the FA Cup might be seen now as a distraction.
However, a defeat at the Championship club who managed a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge would possibly be the first of two eliminations from knock-out competitions in quick succession, which would hardly be inspiring for what’s left of their season. When Chelsea’s 2012 cup campaign got underway they were out of the title race, though only eleven points behind the leaders. But more importantly than that, seven games ago they were a point better off than Arsenal and just inside the top four.
The owner and the club’s supporters realise the importance of changing that back before the end of the campaign, and it will be the number one requirement asked of Di Matteo. So with Leicester City awaiting the winner of this tie in the sixth round, it remains to be seen how important, or not, progress in the FA Cup is now for the Premier League side.
Meanwhile, if Chris Hughton’s side, which up until Christmas had been competing in the Europa League, do take full advantage of the current goings-on in west London, they would face the prospect of further games on top of an already hectic forthcoming schedule of fixtures in the Championship.