The main focus of the weekend here in England were the two FA Cup Semi-Finals at Wembley; whether you are in favour of the semi-finals being played at Wembley, or as a traditionalist like me think that the big stage should be reserved for the Final alone; it is undeniable that playing these games at the national stadium adds to the grandeur of the occasion in some way.
The first game, on Saturday evening, saw Antonio Conte prioritise the league with his team selection starting with key attacking weapons Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench. While it was a move consistent with the ongoing narrative of the competition this year, which has seen more and more teams from the top two divisions demonstrate clearly that it is the bread and butter, or indeed greater financial gains, of the League campaign that are more important than the world’s oldest cup competition, it was nevertheless a risk. Ultimately Conte’s decision will be seen as a tactical masterstroke with Hazard coming on to seal progression to the final and Costa scoring a double as the league leaders followed up their Wembley win with a 4-2 victory over Southampton at Stamford Bridge three days later.
For Spurs this was their seventh consecutive FA Cup Semi-Final defeat and also their seventh defeat at the new Wembley Stadium, the most by any club in the country. While of course Pochettino and his players can’t be held responsible for all of those defeats; it is very much starting to feel that in order to truly reach the next level to which they clearly aspire, this squad is going to have to overcome the hoodoo they seem to have in big games and specifically big games against Chelsea. As well as Spurs played on the day, it was Chelsea’s ruthless attitude and ability to take their chances that separated the two sides; as Pochettino himself said Chelsea’s finishing was more ‘clinical’ than his team’s.
Quite what influence Chelsea’s win will have on the title race remains to be seen? Spurs bounced back with a hard-fought victory at Sam Allardyce’s resurgent Crystal Palace on Wednesday evening, to keep the gap at four points with five games to play; but with the visit of North London rivals Arsenal in their next game following immediately after Chelsea have visited Goodison Park, it feels very much as if this Sunday could be absolutely pivotal in deciding which of the two goes on to the lift the Premier League trophy.
With Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City having largely underwhelmed so far this season and Asène Wenger desperate to salvage something, anything, from the wreckage of 2017; neither side really had any other option than to go with full-strength line-ups in the second semi-final on Sunday afternoon. For us Gooners in attendance in the Wembley sunshine, it felt very much like we were there out of obligation rather than expectation, with tickets for the first time that anyone could ever remember for a semi-final, being a hard sell for the club. In the end it was a long-overdue performance based on grit, resilience, no little amount of good fortune and a scrambled extra time goal from the only true matchwinner in the squad, Alexis Sanchez, that gave Asène Wenger the chance to become the most successful manager in the competition’s history. Wenger will lead his team into the club’s twentieth FA Cup final on May 27th; when, if they can somehow find a way to beat Chelsea it would be a record thirteenth win for the club and seventh for Wenger.
While I was ‘enjoying’ the drama and tension at Wembley, Eredivisie leaders Feyenoord coolly dispatched of Vitesse Arnhem with two first-half goals from top marksmen Nicolai Jørgensen; which piled the pressure on title rivals Ajax in the game that followed. Fatigued from having played 120 minutes in Germany in the Europa League the previous Thursday, the Amsterdammers couldn’t muster a response to Locadia’s 25th minute goal, going down 1-0 to PSV in Eindhoven. Ajax’s defeat all but handed the first title this century to their bitter rivals, with Feyenoord needing just one win from their two remaining games to be crowned Landskampioenen for the first time since 1999; with no league games this weekend due to the Cup Final, the first opportunity to secure the title will come with their trip to lowly cross-city rivals Excelsior a week on Sunday. It can only be imagined what the party will be like in Rotterdam if/when the dream becomes a reality.
When I got home from Wembley, I settled down to watch El Classico which was quite simply a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable game that had everything; great goals, a red card, drama, controversy, blood, sweat and tears. It is little wonder that that AS newspaper described it as, ‘El Mayor Espectáculo del Mundo’, it really was the greatest show on Earth. The commentary team on Sky Sports in England described Messi as super-human after his stoppage time winner in the Santiago Bernabeu blew the title race wide open once again, his 500th goal in just 577 games certainly suggests that the Argentinian wizard may well just be the ‘best there ever was, the best there is and the best there ever will be’.