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Stuttering Chelsea are ripe for the picking for in-form Spurs

Stuttering Chelsea are ripe for the picking for in-form Spurs
Tottenham Hotspur's Christian Eriksen runs off in celebration after scoring against Chelsea when the two sides met in November 2016. Photo: AFP. All other photos in report: Getty Images and Reuters

Stuttering Chelsea are ripe for the picking for in-form Spurs

Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspur (Sunday, Singtel Ch109, 12.05am) isn’t just an epic FA Cup semi-final in the making - it’s a spicy all-London showpiece that could swing this season’s title race one-way or the other too. Our Premier League analyst Adrian Clarke (sports@mediacorp.com.sg) previews the tasty showdown…

 

Chelsea have the look of a long distance runner who’s tying up on the final lap.

They blew the rest of the field away with a pace that was too hot to handle at the outset, but as the finish line draws nearer, their head is beginning to rock from side to side.

The team’s rhythm has gone, and each time they cast an apprehensive glance over their shoulder, they see a menacing shadow closing the gap.

That’s Tottenham Hotspur.

In full stride, Mauricio Pochettino’s men are eating up the ground with effortless ease.

The Blues are getting twitchy.

Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium (soon to become home for both these upwardly mobile capital clubs) is, on paper, a completely separate competition.

Yet the nature of the result will unquestionably dictate what we witness over the final six matches of the league season.

Victory for Antonio Conte’s men would reaffirm their belief, and refocus their mindset. Everyone at Stamford Bridge will calm down in timely fashion.

Alternatively, a success beneath the arch for Spurs will provoke the exact opposite response.

Rattled to the core, Chelsea may end up hanging on for dear life as the North London juggernaut steams on through.

In more ways than one, this is a colossally important last four clash.

 

Spurs are favourites

The sign of a fabulous team is that opponents know exactly what they are going to do, but are powerless to prevent them doing it anyway.

That’s how I view Tottenham’s structured play at the moment.

It’s almost robotic at times, with the passes and angles they attempt quite obvious, but Pochettino’s players are moving themselves and the ball with such speed and precision timing, that very few teams can contain them.

Player for player, they are in significantly better form than Chelsea, who looked terribly flat at Old Trafford last weekend.

Results haven’t been disastrous, but the performances of guys like Diego Costa, Pedro, David Luiz and Nemanja Matic are incomparable to their Spurs counterparts.

Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld and Moussa Dembele have been operating at a higher level.

Current form tells me the Blues have it all to do.

 

A big call for Pochettino

Spurs matched Chelsea up in a 3-4-2-1 shape for both league encounters, with varying degrees of success. In actual fact, for three of those 45 minute passages it worked superbly.

Does the Argentine take the formulaic route by switching to that formation again?

Or should he stick with 4-2-3-1 that’s purring so well, and pose Chelsea questions in a different manner?

It’s a tough one, but I’d go with three at the back.

It’s a system that allows the two wide centre-backs (Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen) to get extra tight to Eden Hazard in between the lines, with two towering midfielders in the shape of Dembele and Victor Wanyama also protecting from the front.

Members of a back four can’t go and engage the Belgian as easily, for fear of leaving a big hole behind them.

As hot as Spurs are, it would be churlish to get too cocky. Shackling Hazard is half the battle against Chelsea.

 

Alli v Kante

A Wembley duel at dusk (well, almost) between two of the season’s most special performers holds the key to the outcome of this semi.

Can the irrepressibly brilliant N’Golo Kante put the brakes on the finest young English player to emerge since Wayne Rooney?

If you cast your mind back to Tottenham’s 2-0 win at White Hart Lane, it was Alli’s two well-timed runs into the box from deep that decided matters, ghosting between Blues markers to bag a handy pair of headers.

The meticulous Conte will surely negate that ploy this time, so Spurs must find other ways of ensuring he’s instrumental.

Chief rearguard protector Kante will be the man asked to screen service into Alli, using his speed to snuff out passes into him.

Pochettino’s jewel must use his football brain to pop up in areas that aren’t so well guarded.

It’s going to be a brilliant battle.

 

Final analysis

A Spurs win has the potential to create a seismic shift in psyche ahead of the title run-in, and because of their momentum, I just can’t back against them.

The football they’re producing is too forceful, too fabulous.

Ninety minutes can change everything of course, and Conte is capable of inspiring a bounce back victory, but if I had to pick a ‘Current Form XI’ from these two sides, Kante and Marcos Alonso are the only ones who’d make the cut from Chelsea.

It feels like Tottenham’s year in the FA Cup.

Prediction: Chelsea 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2

 

Big Match Predictions

Arsenal v Manchester City (Sunday, Singtel Ch109; 9.50pm)

Poor form and general uncertainty has drained the spirits of Arsenal fans, many of whom were dreading this semi-final match up a week ago, but a win coupled with a change in formation at lowly Middlesbrough has perked everybody up. The question is, can their defence cope with City’s stellar front men? A clean sheet looks unlikely, so my hunch is that Pep Guardiola’s side will prevail.

Score call: 1-2

 

Burnley v Manchester United (Sunday, Singtel Ch103 & StarHub Ch228; 9.10pm)

Earlier on in the season I’d have tipped a home win for the combative Clarets at Turf Moor, but Sean Dyche’s side have suffered a dip.

Their workmanlike style will test Manchester United physically, but in a creative sense they’ll come up short.

The Red Devils are breathing fire at the moment, and with a top-four place not written off, they should get the job done. Just.

Score call: 0-1

 

Liverpool v Crystal Palace (Sunday, Ch103 & Ch228; 11.25pm)

This is a dangerous encounter for Liverpool. Injuries to key personnel have weakened Jurgen Klopp’s hand, and a rejuvenated Palace have the weaponry to prey on those weaknesses. The pace of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend will worry them on counters, and with Christian Benteke back at Anfield with a point to prove, it would be no surprise to see the Reds come unstuck. If they do, the top four race will become very interesting.

Score call: 1-2