"They’ll need the perfect game to beat Chelsea" - Chris Sutton previews Chelsea vs Southampton
Chelsea face Southampton this Sunday in an FA Cup semi-final. Both sides have underachieved this season, but they could end the year on a high if they make it to this year's final. To preview the game, JOE spoke to BT Sport pundit Chris Sutton.
No team has retained the Premier League title since Manchester United achieved the feat in 2008/09. Chelsea's title defence this season has been particularly underwhelming, with the Blues looking set to finish fifth, cut adrift from the Champions League pack but comfortably ahead of Arsenal.
A variety of factors have contributed to the disappointment of this season, but they still have a shot at silverware, with an FA Cup semi-final to play against Southampton. Winning the trophy they narrowly missed out on last season would add a thin layer of silver lining to the dark cloud of a season. "I don’t think it would make up for the season but they would finish on a high", says Chris Sutton.
"It’s about looking forward and what they can affect is their chances of winning the FA Cup with a couple of strong performances. I think Conte is a stubborn character but a likeable one, he’s all in, he’s an infectious guy and I think it would be fitting for him to leave with an FA Cup."
One of Conte's big decisions for these matches will be which striker he opts to play through the middle. Big money signing Álvaro Morata has struggled this season after an explosive start, while Olivier Giroud has shown the impact he can have off the bench. "The issue [for Morata] is the number of games – he’s never started as many games he has this season. I think he had a dip and lost a bit of confidence. But I think there’s a player in there", says Sutton.
"Conte has seemed uncertain about which one to start and then at times not started either and gone for the false 9, which I think has been a mistake because I don’t think Eden Hazard relishes that role. To get the best out of your best players, I think the likes of Hazard and Willian like that focal point."
For Chelsea's midweek fixture against Burnley, both Morata and Giroud started, but that was almost certainly a way to rest Hazard and Willian.
Conte also faces a selection dilemma at left wing-back, with Marcos Alonso suspended for a cynical tackle on Shane Long. "I think he’ll be a big miss but Chelsea spent the money on Emerson Palmieri from Roma and he looks to be the natural replacement. It’ll be interesting to see whether he does take Alonso’s place, that’s what you’d expect. It’s an opportunity for him to come in in a big game and really make a name for himself."
Palmieri has not featured much since signing but impressed against Burnley and is the most like-for-like replacement for Alonso. Whether Conte was resting Zappacosta or preparing the young defender for the big game at Wembley remains to be seen.
This semi-final will be a repeat of last weekend's league game that saw Southampton throw away a two goal lead to lose 2-3, as Olivier Giroud inspired a late Chelsea comeback at St Mary's. That result will be playing on the minds of the Southampton players going into this tie.
"It will have a huge impact on Southampton, to have been in that situation, feeling relatively comfortable. I was watching the game and thinking, ‘if Chelsea get one...’ and they got the one and suddenly Southampton just buckled and imploded. That sums Southampton up this season really. They’ll need the perfect game to beat Chelsea", says Sutton.
Southampton's chances of survival are lessening by the day, which one could argue gives them more reason to go all out for this trophy. They might as well go down swinging. "I think talk of ‘will they prioritise the Premier League’? and rest players… they can’t do that. This is a team who haven’t strung two back to back wins together all season. They need to go into this last run of games with confidence.
"Mark Hughes has arrived under very difficult circumstances, the mistake was this blind faith in Pellegrino. I think it was mid-March when they sacked him. The people responsible for the problems at Southampton have been the board, for dithering."
Saints seem to have sleepwalked into relegation, leaving it until March to sack Pellegrino. "I think they were so desperate for Pellegrino to do well after sacking Claude Puel and they wanted to give him as long as possible but they’ve made a huge mistake. They were in fantasy land", Sutton says.
"I felt, in terms of the supporters being disgruntled about Claude Puel, they finished 8th. When you finish 8th and then you’re languishing the next season, that’s a disaster. You have to look at whether Southampton would be in his position had they kept Claude Puel, and it’s easy to sit here and say of course not, but the chances are they wouldn’t."
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is hard to argue.
Chelsea are expected to win this tie, and Sutton does not hesitate to name them his favourites to proceed to the final, where the victors of this tie will face Manchester United, after they beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 in Saturday's semi-final.
Watch Chelsea v Southampton tomorrow on BT Sport 1 from 2:30pm. BT Sport is where the best go head to head, bringing you live coverage of the Premier League and Emirates FA Cup. For more information, visit www.BT.com/sport