Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have been the best two teams in English football this season and are set to serve up an entertaining encounter when they meet in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday (17:15 BST, live on BBC1).
Chelsea ran away with things during the first half of the season, when their lack of European football gave them the advantage over Tottenham and some of their other would-be challengers. They have maintained very solid form throughout the majority of the second half of the campaign, securing an average of two points per match since the turn of the year.
Antonio Conte’s side are still the Premier League leaders but saw their gap to second-placed Tottenham cut to four points following their 2-0 defeat away to Manchester United last weekend. With an easier run-in, they remain the clear title favourites, but it is Spurs who come into the final four of the cup in better form.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side have won each of their last 10 matches in all competitions and have been the most impressive side during the second half of the league season, picking up 2.46 points per match. They are in particularly strong attacking form right now, having scored two or more goals in each of their last 10 matches in all competitions.
Chelsea have lost two of their last four matches at the end of a run of fixtures in which performances and output at both ends of the pitch have dropped off a little. It is not enough to put the league title in serious doubt but sufficient to suggest that Spurs have the slight edge ahead of this Saturday fixture.
Chelsea’s defence, the joint-best in the league up until the end of 2016, now doesn’t look quite so solid. They haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league since January 22 and have gone from conceding 0.68 per match in their first 19 matches to 1.07 per match over the course of their last 13. In attack, too, there has been a drop-off, from 2.21 goals per match across their first 19 matches to 1.77 per match thereafter.
While Spurs travel to Wembley with Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and even Heung-Min Son in fine form, Chelsea’s forwards are faltering. Diego Costa is on a six-match goalless streak in all competitions, while Pedro’s last goal came nearly two months ago. Eden Hazard is still very much pulling his weight but if effectively marked, as he was by Manchester United on Sunday, others may be incapable of stepping up in his stead.
That victory for United was only the third time Chelsea have been defeated in league play since switching to a 3-4-3 formation earlier in the campaign. One of those other two defeats came at the hands of Tottenham in early January and it will be interesting to see if Conte has learned from that fixture and can present a more effective counter-strategy for this FA Cup clash on Saturday.
Spurs used what was pretty much a 3-5-1-1 formation in that match, with Alli pushed up close to Kane up front, while Eriksen regularly dropped back into midfield. They matched up physically in the centre of the pitch and employed two wing-backs capable of forcing Chelsea’s into primarily defensive work.
It was the first time that Chelsea had been unable to impose their own shape on an opposing side and in a tight match it was two remarkably similar goals from Alli, both scored on back-post headers from accurate Eriksen crosses, that were the difference between the sides. Perhaps it was a preview of what to expect in this semi-final clash.
The absence of the injured Danny Rose may force Pochettino into changing shape this time around, but his side have shown themselves capable of performing well regardless of their alignment in recent weeks. He is also without long-term absentees Erik Lamela and Harry Winks. Chelsea expect to welcome back goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and wing-back Marcos Alonso, both of whom missed out last weekend.
This match provides an exciting opportunity to see the country’s two best sides square off and while it is likely to be an encounter that maintains intrigue throughout the 90 minutes, an in-form Spurs side are capable of righting defeats in each of their last six semi-final appearances to progress to their first FA Cup final since they last won the competition in 1991.