History will be kind to Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal. People will see a Tottenham versus Chelsea matchup in the record books, see the surrounding context of the clubs’ recent successes, and assume Wembley hosted a clash of titans. After all, do you remember what kind of form Manchesters City and United carried into last season’s semis? You see those two names and assume the matchup was huge.
Last year, it was. This year it’s still a big occasion, but the anticipation has been tempered by the form of two psychologically wounded sides. Tottenham’s struggled since Fabio Capello moved Harry Redknapp to within a nod of the England job, while Chelsea’s stabilization in the wake of Andre Villas-Boas hasn’t obscured their often tentative play. Neither of these clubs have risen to their reputations. Neither of these clubs’ results have reflected their talent.
Place those expectations aside, and London’s semifinalists look a lot like Liverpool’s. On Saturday, Everton and Liverpool will engage in an intra-city derby that could help make their season. Should either side win the FA Cup, many of the campaign’s trials get cast into a new, more favorable light, possibly becoming outright justifiable.
The same is true for London’s duo. Having won it three times in the last five years, the FA Cup’s become a special trophy for Chelsea, one that would ensure they are in Europe next year. And although Tottenham has won a League Cup in recently, winning the FA Cup for the first time in 21 years is an accomplishment some would prefer Champions League qualification.
“It’s about time we won another trophy,” Harry Redknapp told the media on Friday. “This is a great opportunity for us to go all the way this year. On our day we can beat Chelsea. We can beat anyone.”
Thus, just as it did for Stoke City last year, Portmouth the year before, Everton before that and Cardiff City in 2008, the FA Cup gives London’s giants a way to forget their problems – quite a remarkable trick. While we spend so much time talking about all the ways Chelsea is different from most clubs in England – from their oligarch owner, to their huge payrolls, debt, and losses, to the hubris of fees paid for the likes of Fernando Torres and Villas-Boas – the world’s oldest cup competition has found a way to make them no different than, say, the Pompey side that tried to upend them two years ago. In both cases, come May, the FA Cup represented salvation.
For the clubs’ managers, an FA Cup could provide some professional salvation. The case for Roberto di Matteo as Chelsea’s permanent boss is being made, but if he has any hope of retaining job (and it will only be a slim hope), he not only has to finish fourth, he has to get silverware. For Redknapp, the indignity of permitting his team to win only one in seven during a crucial stretch of the season will be forgotten if Spurs get to take an open-roofed parade through Tottenham.
But that’s all end game. Sunday is only step one, the semifinal, and the stakes are clear. One team will get a chance at salvation. The other will face weeks of scrutiny, retread crisis speculation, and unless they can claim fourth in league, a season that lacks definition. Even for Spurs, a team for whom Champions League should still be a novelty, the late season swoon would make fourth place more consolation than accomplishment.
One man you don’t want to miss
When planning for Spurs, the first player you account for is Gareth Bale, Tottenham’s all-world left wing. When your best defensive right back is suspended, the planning becomes much, much more difficult.
Chelsea fullback Branislav Ivanovic begins serving his three match suspension on Sunday, the product of a punch thrown at Wigan’s Shaun Maloney in the Blues’ win last Saturday.
According to the FA, “The incident, which was not seen by the match officials but caught on video, occurred during his side’s game against Wigan at Stamford Bridge on Saturday 7 April 2012. A Regulatory Commission heard [the appeal on Friday] and Ivanovic’s three match suspension will commence with immediate effect.”
Don’t cry too much for Chelsea, as Portuguese international José Bosingwa is Invanovic’s cover. While he may not be as reliable defensively, Bosingwa’s much faster than Ivanovic. Against Bale, it could prove to be a better match up.
The suspension could also have effects higher up the pitch. Midfielder Michael Essien will have to be more aware of his right back lingering in attack. He’ll be called on to cover while Ramires, playing on the right side in midfield, will also be asked to help.