The FourFourTwo Preview: Chelsea vs Tottenham
The League Cup final. That should suffice.
- Chelsea 1-1 Burnley (Prem)
- PSG 1-1 Chelsea (CL)
- Chelsea 1-0 Everton (Prem)
- Villa 1-2 Chelsea (Prem)
- Chelsea 1-1 Man City (Prem)
- Fiorentina 2-0 Spurs (EL)
- Spurs 2-2 West Ham (Prem)
- Spurs 1-1 Fiorentina (EL)
- Liverpool 3-2 Spurs (Prem)
- Spurs 2-1 Arsenal (Prem)
It seems like only yesterday that Spurs blitzed Chelsea in an eight-goal thriller that stands as one of the games of the season so far. But the reality is, when the two teams walk out onto the pitch in the palatial surroundings of Wembley this Sunday, it will have been two months to the day. And so here it is: the 55th League Cup final in English football history, as north and south-west London face off in a repeat of the 2008 showpiece.
With both sides tied at 4-4 in League Cup lifts, the game is an opportunity for one club to join Aston Villa as the second-most successful team in the competition's history and edge closer to Liverpool's record eight trophies. Spurs have appeared in seven finals, winning the tournament in 2008, 1999, 1973 and 1971, while Chelsea's successes came in 2007, 2005, 1998 and 1965.
If the game is anything like the New Years' Day clash at White Hart Lane then neutrals are in for a treat, but cup finals are generally far more cagey affairs in modern football – though to the League Cup's credit there have been at least three goals in four of the last five finals, including Swansea's thrashing of Bradford two years ago. Jose Mourinho started the backchat early ahead of this final, saying Spurs have "an advantage" due to Nemanja Matic's suspension after the red card against Burnley, a decision that so angered the Portuguese winning machine it got him out of bed on a Sunday morning and into Sky Sports' studios to rail at a perceived 'campaign' against his team.
"They have such a good squad, almost replicas with two players for every position," Mourinho has commented. "What’s the difference between Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend? Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen? Paulinho and Ryan Mason? Vertonghen and Fazio — actually Vertonghen likes to get cards to the opponents." It seems Jose's growing tendency to try to portray his teams as underdogs (as at Real Madrid and last season when he insisted for months his team could not win the title) continues.
Given Spurs' recent fixture schedule it's hard to agree with the idea that Mauricio Pochettino's team have any advantage heading into Sunday's final.
Throwing up a tough trip to Florence in the Europa League less than 72 hours before the final as it did, the fixture schedule can't really have been any less kind to Spurs, and the looming prospect of a showpiece final must have been at least somewhere in the back of the players' minds during their 2-0 loss at Fiorentina.
Pochettino rotated his side for that defeat, including resting man of the moment Harry Kane, but there remains a chance Spurs could be slightly battle weary given their European commitments, while Chelsea have enjoyed a full week to prepare.
So who will be Sunday's hero? Can Kane, Eriksen or Lamela follow in the footsteps of Martin Chivers, Ralph Coates, Allan Neilsen and Jonathan Woodgate?
Or will Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas or big-goal-loving Branislav Ivanovic write their name into the Blues' history books like Eddie McCreadie, Frank Sinclair, Mateja Kezman and Didier Drogba?
From a neutral's perspective, it's going to be fun finding out.
Matic is suspended and Mourinho stated on February 20 that John Obi Mikel was "out for another two weeks minimum", which if our maths is correct means he is likely to miss out here. That paves the way for Ramires to occupy the role of midfield botherer. Spurs have a fully fit squad to choose from, providing there are no last-minute niggles picked up from the botched Italian job.
Key battle: Diego Costa vs Harry Kane
Even writing the above ahead of a major cup final seems quite bizarre, really. To cast your mind back and think that this time almost exactly a year ago, one was the most coveted striker in Europe, banging in two goals against AC Milan in the Champions League, while the other was playing against West Brom's kids in the Under-21 Premier League, is quite incredible.
It's testament to Kane's remarkable rise that the youngster – one of Spurs' own, as the White Hart Lane faithful is keen to remind us – heads into a Wembley final as the player many Chelsea supporters will be most fearful of. A late tap-in against West Ham last weekend took Kane's goal haul this season to 24, seven more than Chelsea's £32 million man (though the Spanzilian has three more in the league).
When the two teams met in January both Costa and Kane were on the scoresheet, though it was the Ridgeway Rovers youth team graduate who stole the show with two goals, an assist and a penalty won as Spurs stunned the league leaders in a thriller.
Given his heroics this season, you wouldn't put it past Kane capping a dream season by bagging the winner in a major cup final – and if he does, you can expect a gold statue of him on Seven Sisters Road by May.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Spurs 5-3 Chelsea (PL, Jan 15)
- Chelsea 3-0 Spurs (PL, Dec 14)
- Chelsea 4-0 Spurs (PL, Mar 14)
- Spurs 1-1 Chelsea (PL, Sep 13)
- Chelsea 2-2 Spurs (PL, May 13)
Mourinho is often criticised for his antics but his record is undeniable: he heads to Wembley looking to add to his two Champions League winners' medals, one UEFA Cup, two Portuguese league titles, two Premier League titles, two Serie A titles, one La Liga winners' medal, one Copa del Rey, one Supercopa, one Italian Supercoppa, one Coppa Italia, one Taca de Portugal, one FA Cup and two League Cups.
By contrast, Pochettino, 10 years Mourinho's junior, heads to Wembley looking for his first honours as a manager.
Fatigue could play a major role; the timing really couldn't be any worse for Spurs, post-Europa League heartbreak. Pochettino's side battle bravely, but Chelsea nick it late, probably via Ivanovic. 2-1.