Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud were in scintillating form as Chelsea battled to a hard-fought but deserved 2-0 win over Southampton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud were in scintillating form as Chelsea battled to a hard-fought but deserved 2-0 win over Southampton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. The win was, however, marred slightly by controversy after the Saints had a goal controversially ruled out.
For both clubs, the FA Cup represented an opportunity to add gloss to a deeply disappointing season. Last season’s champions Chelsea face the likely prospect of missing out on the Premier League top four, while Southampton need a remarkable turnaround in form - as well as needing other teams' results to go in their favor - if they are to have any hope of avoiding the drop.
Blues manager Conte reverted to a single-striker formation after playing Olivier Giroud alongside Álvaro Morata in the 2-1 away win over Burnley. Surprisingly, the former Arsenal striker got the nod ahead of Morata, who is the Blues' second-highest scorer this season with 14 goals. This decision may have been partly due to the Spain striker's petulant reaction after being substituted at Turf Moor.
In any case, it looked like an inspired decision by Conte, as Giroud and Eden Hazard combined superbly to create the Blues' first opportunity in the opening minutes, although Hazard's ferocious strike missed the target.
The Frenchman and the Belgian linked well on a number of occasions in a first half completely dominated by Chelsea, with Hazard a constant menace for the Saints. Only a superb challenge by Southampton defender Maya Yoshida denied Hazard a golden chance to score from close range.
Willian also looked dangerous, hitting the crossbar in the seventh minute with a curling effort which gave Saints keeper Alex McCarthy no chance, and firing a free kick narrowly over the bar in the 14th minute.
Yet it was a frustrating first half both for Chelsea and for neutral observers, as Southampton showed next to no attacking ambition on an unseasonably hot afternoon at Wembley.
If Saints boss Mark Hughes' decision to play Charlie Austin and Shane Long up front looked bold, it seemed that a truer reflection of his intentions was the decision to drop attacking midfielder Dušan Tadić. As a result of Hughes' ultra-cautious approach, Austin and Long looked forlorn and isolated all through the first half, and at times the Saints appeared to be playing an 8-0-2 formation.
If containment was Southampton's priority, their tactical approach went up in smoke in the first minute of the second half, as Hazard and Giroud once again combined to excellent effect.
Hazard showed exquisite technique to bring down a lofted pass by the impressive Cesc Fabregas, before playing in Giroud in the box. The big striker showed astonishing close control to dribble round several defenders and slot home from close range.
The goal seemed to spark Southampton into life straight away, and Long went down in the Chelsea box under a tough but fair challenge by Fabregas - though Chelsea could have doubled their advantage moments later, as Willian burst forward and set up Hazard, who curled his shot wide of the far post.
Then, in the 54th minute, Long fluffed a golden opportunity after a superb dummy by Austin had left him clean through with just Willy Caballero to beat.
It was Long's last act of the match, as he was replaced by Nathan Redmond in the 63rd minute. Hughes also brought on Tadić in attempt to inject some creativity into the Saints' play.
The Saints did indeed look more impressive after the substitutions, with Caballero making an unconvincing save from a stinging Redmond drive in the 72nd minute.
Charlie Austin also felt extremely aggrieved when he was harshly adjudged to have fouled the Chelsea keeper as the ball appeared to cross the goal line.
Yet Chelsea still presented a constant threat, with Hazard consistently outstanding. The Belgian forced a fine diving save from McCarthy in the 74th minute and was unlucky to see his low cross deflected behind for a corner three minutes later, after a mesmerising run down the right.
Hughes threw on Manolo Gabbiadini in the 78th minute in a desperate bid to force an equalizer - but it was Chelsea's substitute Morata who scored the next goal. As so often this season, he headed home a pinpoint cross from his compatriot César Azpilicueta.
If he'd been a little more clinical, Morata could have had a hat trick in a matter of minutes as the game became stretched.
The Saints could also have halved the deficit when Austin struck a post from what looked like an impossibly narrow angle. Ultimately, however, their hard work was all in vain.
Chelsea will face Manchester United in the final in May. In the meantime, they will resume their pursuit of an unlikely top-four place, while Southampton will resume their increasingly desperate battle against relegation.