Neither Chelsea nor Spurs have exactly been setting the Premier League alight in recent weeks and both have arguably bigger fish to fry in the increasingly nail-biting three-way chase for fourth place and the Holy Grail of Champions League qualification.
Caretaker Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo, who has instilled a spirit and togetherness lacking under Andre Villas-Boas, has made no secret of his annoyance at the Football Association giving his team hardly any breathing space by scheduling today’s showdown so close to Wednesday’s equally eagerly awaited Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
The Italian insists the European game will not influence his line-up against Spurs but it seems inconceivable that one or two of his most trusted servants will not be rested ahead of the unenviable task of trying to stop Lionel Messi & Co.
“I will look at the team for Sunday and only think about what’s best for that game – to win that game,” said Di Matteo. “Whichever team I select, they have to put in a collective effort to win the game. One player alone won’t be able to do that.”
Chelsea are set to play four games in nine days and today’s is perhaps one of the less important in the club’s punishing end to the season. But nothing breeds confidence like winning. Wembley has become almost a second home for the Blues, who have won the cup three times in the past six years – although they have never met Spurs at this stage of the competition. Knocking out one of their London rivals to reach another final would put the players in great heart going into the mouthwatering Barça semi-final.
Last season Gary Cahill was part of a Bolton team looking to reach their first FA Cup final in 53 years. His dreams were shattered as Stoke hammered the Trotters 5-0 and the centre back, now an integral part of Chelsea’s squad, is desperate to banish those memories. “It still hurts,” said Cahill. “Now I have a chance to put it right. We realise how big the games on Sunday and Wednesday are. It is a defining moment in the season.”
Spurs may be renowned as a cup side but they haven’t won the world’s oldest domestic knockout competition for 21 years. For them, today is partly about proving that the wheels have not completely fallen off in a season which promised so much. It could yet finish on a high if they can get their act together again.
Manager Harry Redknapp has described as “absolute nonsense” persistent suggestions that the alarming slump which has seen his team take only six points out of a possible 24 is inextricably linked with all the talk of him being the odds-on favourite to become the next England manager.
But few are convinced. Three days after Fabio Capello quit – ironically on the same day Redknapp was acquitted in his tax evasion case – Spurs slaughtered Newcastle 5-0 to move to within five points Manchester United at the top and open up a ten-point gap over Arsenal. An 11-match unbeaten run at the end of 2011 had the purists comparing the current side with the great Spurs vintages of the past.
Now, after just one win in eight, they are in serious danger of missing out on Champions League football altogether.
Most Spurs fans, of course, would have taken the current situation at the start of the season but this is the business end. Whether the club admits it or not, finishing outside the top four seems almost certain to lead to the likes of Gareth Bale and Luca Modric seeking alternative employment and the side having to be rebuilt once more.
To make matters worse for Spurs, they are struggling not only for form but also for fit defenders. Younes Kaboul, their most consistent centre back, is the latest casualty. Michael Dawson is out for the season while Ledley King, so often the returning hero despite rarely training because of a damaged knee, was found so wanting in the Easter Monday home defeat by Norwich that, even when half-fit, time appears to have caught up with him.
Redknapp has nevertheless done his sabre-rattling best to get the team fired up to emulate 1991 – when they last laid hands on the FA Cup. “This is a great opportunity for us to go all the way this year. There is not a lot between the two teams, but they have the medals to show for it. If we’d come from nowhere and suddenly moved into fourth, we’d all be going, ‘great’. But I’d have taken this position at the start of the year for sure.”
Bale believes the fact that Spurs still lead Chelsea in the Premier League, albeit by two points, is an indication of a possible power shift. “I think if we are on our game on the day, then we can reach the final because I feel we have the better team,” he said. “We played very well at Stamford Bridge recently, it ended goalless but we had the better chances on the day and we probably should have won the game. That will give us plenty of confidence. Hopefully, we’ve some history to make.”