LONDON - If the Chelsea players want to give Antonio Conte a farewell present of winning the F.A. Cup final against Manchester United on Saturday, they will have to raise their game considerably from the shambolic, error-ridden performance in the 3-0 defeat by Newcastle United last Sunday.
It was a display that typified Chelsea’s season of inconsistency. Conte said: “I wasn’t able to get my determination through to my players.” Which begs the question: why were they not determined in the first place?
“If we play like that in the F.A. Cup final, we don’t have a chance.”
It has been an unexpectedly underachieving nine months for last year’s title winner, who finished 30 points behind Manchester City and failed to qualify for the Champions League. Conte has spoken like a man who knows his time at Stamford Bridge is up and the team too often has played like a side aware the manager is soon to be Chelsea’s next ex-manager.
Conte’s criticism of Chelsea’s recruitment policy (surely no one would own up to being responsible for the £40 million Tiemoue Bakayako from Monaco?) would only have credibility if he was not consulted about who the club signed and sold. It is difficult to imagine the ins and outs were all clandestine acts by Roman Abramovich’s inner circle; it is equally implausible that the Russian owner, who does not tolerate such negative comments, will not punish the Italian by making him an offer he cannot refuse — the sack.
United’s season has been more consistent even if it was a distant second-best to the so-called noisy neighbors. With the exception of champion Manchester City, which finished 19 points ahead of its rival, United was easily the best of the rest of the Premier League.
Had it not been for City, then United would be on course for the double, but Jose Mourinho has been in the considerable shadow of his cross-city rival Pep Guardiola and his record-breaking team. Finishing runner-up and winning the F.A. Cup would cross the line between failure and relative success,but United supporters are unhappy about the quality, or rather lack of it, of the side’s football. Mourinho rejects such criticism, believing that winning is the only entertainment, though a campaign bereft of silverware would leave the self-styled Special One open to the sort of comments he immediately rejects.
The final is a repeat of the first held at the new Wembley in 2007 when Didier Drogba scored an extra-time winner as Mourinho’s Chelsea won 1-0. The Portuguese is now looking to lift the trophy for the first time as United’s manager and claim his third piece of silverware — last season, his side triumphed in both the League Cup (against Southampton) and the Europa League (against Ajax) — to round off his second year at Old Trafford on a winning note.
It is an interesting quirk of Conte’s coaching career that while he has won five league titles at Bari, Juventus and Chelsea, he is yet to succeed in a knockout competition. Last year’s F.A. Cup final loss to Arsenal was the second defeat in the two finals his teams have competed in; the other was in 2012 when his Juventus side lost to Napoli in the Coppa Italia final.
If you were going to choose a coach to set up a team for a one-off match, the majority would plump for Mourinho ahead of Conte (and most others) because the United manager rarely gets it wrong with his team selection, tactics (albeit usually based on pragmatism) and substitutions.
Unlike Conte, Mourinho has an outstanding record in cup finals. He has won 12 out of 14 in his coaching career and is undefeated in five in English competitions.
In Eden Hazard, Chelsea has the most gifted player on view, though Mourinho is likely to use Ander Herrera as a midfield enforcer to nullify the Belgium international’s potential match-winning skills.
For United, Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku could haunt Chelsea, who he joined from Anderlecht for £18 million before moving to Everton in 2011 for £28 million having started just one Premier League match for the Blues. United paid £75 million for Lukaku last summer and he hopes to collect his first winner’s medal at the expense of his former club at Wembley.
“He’s developed into a world-class striker, all credit to him,” said Chelsea defender Gary Cahill. “I’ve played and trained against him loads of times and it’ll be difficult on Saturday.”
Alexis Sanchez has belatedly found form since his January switch from Arsenal and the suspicion is there is always a match-winning performance in Paul Pogba even if the France midfielder keeps them to a premium.
Expect a tight, tactical match, but this observer is reluctant to bet against Mourinho.
Squad mixes youth, veterans
England’s three 2018 goalkeepers, Jason Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope, have nine caps between them. Of the seven defenders John Stones, Gary Cahill and Danny Rose have not been regulars for their clubs while Manchester City right-back Kyle Walker is set to be a central defender for England.
The six midfielders — Jesse Lingard. Dele Alli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier and Fabian Delph — have scored six international goals in 107 appearances between them. England’s strike force, its strongest department with Harry Kane leading the way, includes Danny Welbeck, who has hardly had a vintage season for Arsenal and Marcus Rashford, almost a permanent substitute for Manchester United.
Yet the squad for Russia is just about the best Gareth Southgate could have selected. Teams that do well at World Cups tend to be experienced with a defensive unit capable of shutouts against the best. It is no wonder England fans believe reaching the quarter-finals would be seen as success.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.