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More at stake than just cup final place for Chelsea, Spurs

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London

The pity is that the F.A. Cup semifinal between Chelsea and Tottenham is not a Premier League match. With six games remaining, Chelsea leads Spurs by four points, following the Blues’ 2-0 loss at Manchester United on Sunday. While no league points will be at stake in Saturday’s game between the two best teams in England, it is still likely to have a significant effect on the title race.

Both Chelsea and Tottenham could complete the double next month and the Wembley winners will strike a huge psychological blow. While Chelsea is still in pole position with the easier run-in and the title is the Blues’ to lose, pressure can do strange things to a team.

In the past five years, Manchester United and Liverpool have both grasped title failure from the jaws of victory. United was eight points clear in 2012 with six matches to play, but pressed its self-destruct button and Manchester City became champion on goal difference. Two years later, Liverpool had a five-point advantage with three to play yet Chelsea overtook the Reds on the finish line.

Chelsea’s defeat at Old Trafford was its second in four matches following the 2-1 loss to Crystal Palace. By its standard this season, that represents something of a crisis and Spurs fans will point out to anyone listening that in January their victory over Chelsea ended the Blues’ 13-match winning streak, though Chelsea won the earlier match at Stamford Bridge.

“They’ve shown they are able to beat us,” said Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. “But we’ve shown we are able to beat them. Now we’ll see what the result is in the semifinal.”

Tottenham is the form team going into Saturday’s game, having won its last eight and is unbeaten in 10 — in that sequence it has scored at least two goals in each match, chalking up six shutouts.

Mauricio Pochettino keeps opponents guessing about Spurs’ formation and has successfully switched his tactics from a four-man back-line to three defenders and wing-backs, the latter the system that has served Chelsea so well this season.

Conte will have noted how Manchester United’s Ander Herrera man-marked Eden Hazard and made the most influential midfielder in the Premier League anonymous last weekend. In Eric Dier, Spurs has a player who would relish a job like this, though Conte will have worked in practice on ensuring Hazard and the team are more mobile to ensure lighting does not strike twice.

Conte’s main dilemma is Diego Costa, who has scored only three league goals this year. At the turn of the year, the Spain international had scored 14 goals and was a candidate for the end-of-season awards. In mid-January he fell out with Conte when the striker tried to force a move to Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian. While the pair appeared to have settled their differences, Costa’s form had dipped.

Opponents have tended to defend deeper against Chelsea in the last couple of months, denying the forwards space. With Dier, Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, Pochettino can be confident the Blues’ midfield enforcers, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, will struggle for supremacy.

If Spurs have a particular edge it is Harry Kane, who is on his way to becoming a Tottenham legend. Fit again after being sidelined for a month because of an ankle injury, the 23-year-old scored his 20th goal of the season against Bournemouth last Saturday. For those looking for a Wembley match-winner, Kane ticks every box.

As much as anything, Pochettino wants to show Tottenham has learned from last season, when it fell away in the final games to finish third behind Leicester and Arsenal. He said: “If we only look at the data, we have improved a lot. With six to play, we have 71 points, when last season we finished with 70. We have improved, that’s a reality. The team is playing in a good way, exciting football, scoring goals, conceding not too much. Now is the moment to translate those statistics and that feeling to show if we’ve grown up and learned.”

On Sunday, Arsenal plays Manchester City and the F.A. Cup represents Pep Guardiola’s chance to win his first trophy in English soccer. If this happens, City fans would regard victory in the competition as more of a success than Arsenal supporters. The majority’s opinion of Arsene Wenger, or under-fire Arsene Wenger, to give him his full name in 2017, would not be swayed by winning the F.A. Cup for a record 13th time.

Arsenal struggled to beat Middlesbrough 2-1 Monday and the result made it five wins, one draw, and six defeats from the Gunners’ last 12 games, two of those victories being against non-league opposition in the F.A. Cup.

City’s attacking trio of Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane have the pace to exploit Arsenal’s defensive frailties. Defeat for Arsenal would put even more pressure, if that is possible, on Wenger not to sign the two-year contract the club seems willing to offer him. At some stage, Arsenal fans may realize they will have to put up with him for a while.

Birmingham pays price

There are no doubt numerous entries for the worst managerial appointment in soccer, but Birmingham City sacking Gary Rowett and replacing him with Gianfranco Zola is a strong contender.

It is not hindsight because everyone except Birmingham’s Hong Kong-based owner, Trillion Trophy Asia, said so at the time when the club was seventh after 21 games, outside the playoff places only on goal difference. Twenty-two matches and two wins later, Birmingham is three points off the Championship relegation zone and Zola has resigned.

Club director Panos Pavlakis explained their decision to dispense with Rowett, now in charge at Derby County, by saying that Zola’s “pedigree” matched their ambition to “move in a new direction.”

However, the new direction he had in mind was probably not League One.

Zola’s pedigree was more mongrel. This is the second time the former Chelsea striker has resigned as manager of an English club, having quit Watford following five successive home defeats. He also spent two years in charge of West Ham United before the club terminated the Italian’s contract after finishing 17th in the Premier League.

Zola was a wonderful player and is one of the most charming people you could wish to meet, but he is not a very good manager. However, the owners were star-struck and wanted a big-name manager whose dignified and swift departure was inevitable from day one.

On Tuesday, Birmingham turned to soccer’s Red Adair and in came Harry Redknapp. The media darling wasted no time showing us what we have missed. “I drove to London, had a meeting for 10 to 15 minutes, sat down and said ‘Yeah, sure, I will come and do it no problem.’ “

It was pure Harry.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.