Antonio Conte revealed that he always planned for Eden Hazard to make a decisive impact off the bench after the Belgium star’s inspired second-half cameo secured Chelsea a 4-2 win over Tottenham in a thrilling FA Cup semifinal at Wembley.
Hazard and Diego Costa were surprisingly omitted from Chelsea’s starting XI to take on their bitter London rivals, but both were introduced in the 61st minute with the score level at 2-2 after strikes from Harry Kane and Dele Alli had cancelled out Willian’s first-half free kick and penalty.
The match tilted in Chelsea’s favour in the 75th minute, when Hazard fired in through a mass of bodies after Tottenham had failed to clear a corner, and the midfielder then laid the ball off for Nemanja Matic to settle the game with a 30-yard thunderbolt 10 minutes from time.
“Our plan was this,” Conte said. “I tried also to tell our players to stay in the game, because [if] we pass more time [on the clock], it was better for us. Then I decided last 30 minutes to put Eden and Diego in, and then Cesc [Fabregas], because don’t forget Cesc was very important also for us.
“I must be pleased because in this game I involved all my players in our idea, in our football,” the manager added. “I think it’s very important in this part of the season that everyone, every single player, feels a part of this project.
“In this part of the season when you know you have to play three tough games [in a week], you must make strong decisions and take responsibility to make these decisions. It’s not easy to decide to start the game without two important players, Hazard and Diego, but I think you must take this responsibility and you must involve your players in your plan and then take this risk.”
Conte insisted that reaching the FA Cup final was always Chelsea’s “top priority” and praised the performances of Michy Batshuayi and Nathan Ake, who were both handed their first starts since January on the Wembley stage.
“I’m pleased because Michy started the game, a really important game,” said the boss. “It’s very important for him, for his confidence. Ake is a young player from our academy. He must be proud to see his commitment, to see the level he played at in this type of game. It’s not easy for Ake to go and play [so well here].
“I trust them, [as well as] every single player, and I think I showed this today.”
Chelsea and Tottenham remain locked in a close Premier League title race with just four points separating them heading into the final six matches of the season, but Conte does not believe this win will give the Blues a psychological edge.
“I think the FA Cup and league are two different competitions, and for this reason it’s important to be focused,” he said. “We have two days to be focused and prepare very well.
“Against Southampton, we have to play a tough game and we know Tottenham want to fight until the end. I think they have all the possibility to do this.”
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