Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur Preview: defining finale for Conte

Antonio Conte – express.co.uk

It seems inevitable that Antonio Conte will leave Chelsea this summer – what is less clear is the manner in which that departure will take place.

Finish with an FA Cup victory and qualification for the Champions League, and the Italian will be remembered as one of the most successful managers in the club’s history. Finish the season trophy-less and outside the top four, and the more forlorn character we have seen since May could be the festering memory.

The attainability of the first objective will be decided by the semi-final date with Southampton, but failure to win Easter Sunday’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur will define their chances of achieving the second target almost as clearly.

To keep their already slim top four hopes alive, they must beat Spurs – which they are 27/20 to do with 32Red click here. That though is no easy feat: Mauricio Pochettino’s men have lost just two of their last 26 games in all competitions.

Of those 26 games Harry Kane started 19 – and the 24-year-old scored the same number of goals. The former Leyton Orient loanee picked up an unfortunate ankle injury and while he is stepping up rehabilitation, he is not expected to play a prominent role here.

Kane picked up that injury in the first half of Tottenham’s last match, a trip to Bournemouth, but Heung Min-Son fared well in his absence. The South Korean scored twice after moving up top in a 4-1 victory, with Erik Lamela impressing off the bench and Christian Eriksen at his creative best in a fine counter-attacking second half performance.

The caveat though is obvious: while the Cherries are notoriously leaky, Chelsea have conceded eight goals in eight clashes with fellow top six opposition this term. Their defence has been one of the stronger points of their below-par campaign: Cesar Azpilicueta is one of the few players to have performed to the required standard.

As well as his impressive assists for Alvaro Morata in the first half of the season, the right-sided centre-back has shown composure in possession and a strong work rate. His growing leadership skills could also make him a candidate for the role of club captain that has been something of a void since John Terry’s May retirement.

For all the valid criticism of Chelsea’s recruitment, Antonio Rudiger has bucked the trend with his recent displays, in which he has shown a wide range of passing and blistering pace: both qualities can be handy for a role in a back three that requires flexibility.

The biggest question is who will play alongside Azpilicueta and Rudiger: David Luiz is out for another three weeks with a knee problem while Andreas Christensen faces a race against time to be fit.

If the latter is unavailable, Gary Cahill could start and while the Aston Villa academy graduate is a popular figure at Stamford Bridge, there are suggestions that he might be a spent force. That theory is supported by heavy defeats to Bournemouth and Watford that the 32-year-old was partially responsible for, as well as the bare facts: Chelsea are yet to keep a clean sheet in a Premier League game he has played 90 minutes in this calender year.

By contrast, Tottenham centre-back Davinson Sanchez appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Following one or two rash mistakes before Christmas, the former Ajax man has been very consistent over the last three months. In that time, he has combined his well-known athleticism with improved game intelligence, thus reducing the significance of Toby Alderweireld’s long-term absence.

Sanchez has performed well against some of the best attacks in Europe – and Chelsea, on current form, wouldn’t come into that category, even if Willian has put in some reasonable displays. Morata is without a Premier League goal since Boxing Day, Olivier Giroud offers little more than physicality while Eden Hazard appears to be growing frustrated with the defensive football. Chelsea typically play with a back-five, which helps keep the opposition out but gives them little width and variation in the attacking phase.

Should Tottenham triumph without Kane, Champions League qualification will be almost guaranteed, as will their status as the more complete of the two sides.

The Football Lab’s Verdict: 0-1