Momentum with Spurs for FA Cup semi-final showdown vs Chelsea
MANCHESTER: They can't keep a clean sheet. Their striker has stopped scoring. Their opponents have worked out how to stifle them.
The Chelsea juggernaut might just be starting to slow, just when English soccer's major trophies are about to be decided.
Chelsea and Tottenham park their battle for the Premier League title for one weekend when they meet at Wembley Stadium on Saturday for the first of two blockbuster semi-finals in the FA Cup.
There's no doubt which of the two teams has the momentum.
In the white corner, there's Spurs, the form team in the country with eight straight wins in all competitions, during which they've scored 28 goals. They have the meanest defence around and arguably the hottest striker in Harry Kane.
Chelsea, meanwhile, is still the Premier League leader — by four points over Tottenham — and could yet finish the season with the domestic double. But cracks are starting to show.
Antonio Conte's side last kept a clean sheet in the league on Jan. 22, 11 games ago. Top scorer Diego Costa hasn't scored in his last six matches. Chelsea has lost two of its last four games, to Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
In those games, Palace and United played two up front to pressurise Chelsea's three-man backline. Tottenham did the same in beating Chelsea 2-0 at White Hart Lane in the league in January. Tottenham and United also played wing backs in those matches to negate the threat of Chelsea's wide players.
There looks to be a formula to stop Chelsea, provided opponents have the personnel to achieve it, and Spurs clearly do.
"It won't be easy," Conte said, looking ahead to the semi-final, "because Tottenham now is the best team. They are in good form and they have a lot of enthusiasm. They are feeling the possibility to write the history."
Spurs last lifted the FA Cup in 1991 and haven't won the league since 1961. But they look the real deal under Mauricio Pochettino, and just need a piece of silverware to mark their ascent toward the summit of the English game.
Still, Pochettino is discounting form and making Chelsea the favorite.
"If there is one favorite, it's more Chelsea because they are on the top of the table in the Premier League and (with) the experienced players they have, and the manager that they have," Pochettino said on Thursday. "We are talking of the team that maybe in the last five years has won European competitions ... a manager that won the league with Juventus in Italy.
"It's a more experienced team than us. But we're in a good moment, too, a hungry team. To challenge now this type of club, of team, is a very important thing for Tottenham."
The domination of Chelsea and Tottenham in English soccer this season was highlighted on Thursday when the Professional Footballers' Association team of the year was announced. Both clubs had four representatives — Gary Cahill, David Luiz, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard for Chelsea, and Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Dele Alli and Kane for Tottenham.
Here's what else to look out for this weekend:
Arsenal vs Manchester City
The second semi-final looks just as compelling and features two more of England's heavyweight teams whose managers want to win a trophy for different reasons.
City manager Pep Guardiola is looking for something tangible to mark his first season in England, although an FA Cup title will not make up for his team's last-16 exit in the Champions League and failing to mount a Premier League title challenge.
As for Arsene Wenger, this could be his last season in charge of Arsenal, with his contract up in June. Winning the FA Cup in 2014, for his first trophy in nine years, might have persuaded him to stay on as manager and history could be repeated three years later.
With their top-six rivals Premier League playing in the FA Cup, Manchester United and Liverpool can get a jump in the race for a finish in the Champions League qualification positions.
United will close to within a point of fourth-place Manchester City by beating Burnley on Sunday. The Manchester derby takes place on April 27 at City's Etihad Stadium.
Third-place Liverpool hosts Palace seeking a win to move five points clear of City, although Liverpool will have played two more games.