Antonio Conte deserves high praise for his decisions in the FA Cup semi-final

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 22: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates after the full time whistle in The Emirates FA Cup Semi-Final between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on April 22, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 22: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates after the full time whistle in The Emirates FA Cup Semi-Final between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on April 22, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) /

After Chelsea’s devastating loss at Manchester United, Antonio Conte’s team selection against Tottenham came under heavy scrutiny. In the end, Chelsea’s manager played the match perfectly.

Being top of the league and going into an FA Cup semi-final did not soften criticism of Antonio Conte’s squad selection against Manchester United. His shuffling solution to Marcos Alonso’s illness was odd. He also allowed Victor Moses and Costa to play with the same illness, and the latter once again lacked any contribution to the game despite having the full 90 minutes.

It would have been easy to re-think his entire personnel strategy for the FA Cup semi-final, especially as Chelsea’s last game against Spurs was disastrous. To make matters worse, Chelsea’s next league game is on Tuesday.

Antonio Conte had to balance people, priorities and a spate of bad luck. But Conte stuck firm and it paid off. He went to Wembley knowing exactly what to do.

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His decision to leave Eden Hazard and Costa on the bench brought out the critics among the fans and media. Hazard, in particular, can make or break a game – particularly against Tottenham. With the pace and creativity of the current Spurs side, he may have been sorely missed.

But this did not prove too much of a problem. Willian did a fantastic job in the first half, giving Chelsea a goal from an outstanding freekick and keeping calm from the penalty spot.

This team choice also gave Michy Batshuayi a deserved chance to prove himself. He did well in the hour allotted him. For a player who is well out of practise in real game-time, Batshuayi held his own. He often struggled with Spurs’ defence, but many strikers have this season. His determination still sets him apart from the Diego Costa of late.

Nathan Ake’s inclusion in place of Gary Cahill also proved effective, with a solid performance throughout. Bringing him back to Chelsea from loan at Bournemouth has seemed pointless when he has barely made it onto the bench. But he was impressive in the tackle and in matching Spurs’ pace. There is little doubt that he should be seeing more regular appearances. Hopefully he has proven this to Conte.

Antonio Conte’s substitutions were the real game-changers. Hazard and Costa came on in good time, and Hazard’s impact was noticeable from his first touch of the ball. He went on to grab a goal and assist. Not just an average goal and assist, either. He once again made Spurs seem mediocre and Chelsea fearless. Enter Nemanja Matic and his screamer of a goal.

Conte read the game well. Bringing on Hazard at the right time was crucial. Hazard starting on the bench likely had shaken Spurs, who had probably worked hard on tactics to neutralise him. By the time Hazard was on the pitch, Spurs were growing tired. Neither their players nor substitutes could match Hazard’s movement and creativity.

However, one problem that arose was Diego Costa, again. Antonio Conte should have trusted Michy Batshuayi to see out the game. It is not clear at all why Conte puts so much faith in Costa, but he was not necessary today. As Conte said post-match:

"I’m pleased because Michy started this really important game, it’s very important for him and for his confidence… I trust every player. – Chelsea FC"

Conte clearly is willing to give his backseat players a chance, but Batshuayi has had to work harder for his than most this season. As Costa’s goals and impact have dried up, particularly in recent games, it could not have hurt to let Michy see a full 90 minutes.

The only other issue is Chelsea’s focus. Despite leading three times, they lost the lead twice. Both Spurs’ equalisers were followed by periods of sloppy play from the Blues. Although the scoreline may suggest otherwise, Chelsea need to work on how they keep control as they allow the opponent possession.The game ended 4-2, so this is not as big a worry. But other clubs may not be as complacent in taking shots as Tottenham were yesterday.

Antonio Conte has fans singing his name as loudly as ever. He put out a strong team and his faith in each player was evident from the result. And all that is without mentioning David Luiz’s Man of the Match performance, Cesar Azpilicueta’s first game as captain, or the reaction of the bench after Matic’s goal. This team is in sync and their relationships are strong.

Next: Player ratings: Changes pay off for Chelsea in win over Tottenham

Once again, Antonio Conte’s ability to bring together the Chelsea team after the turmoil of last season may be his greatest accomplishment. He picked them back up after the loss to Manchester United and it was a true team effort to win this semi-final. He deserves to win silverware this season. And now, Chelsea are one step closer.