Since they last won the FA Cup in 1991, Tottenham Hotspur reached the semi-finals of the competition on six occasions and lost every time. It is, perhaps, possible that this has has effect on the inner psychology of a club. Something close to indefinable, in the furrowed brows of the supporters when the final comes into view, in the words of journalists and the quietened mutterings of the club’s office staff, a self-perpetuating and self-defeating cloud that hangs over the entire institution. Considering the winners of the quarter-final ties in this year’s competition, there was no “easy” tie for Spurs to look forward to at Wembley this weekend. But Chelsea hold a special hex over Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs haven’t beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for twenty-two years. This was the draw that Spurs didn’t want.
In the second decade of the twenty-first century, professional football has been taken to a new peak in terms of the physical fitness and the technical ability of players, and at the top end of the professional game all of those taking part are magnificent athletes, so to what extent this infinitesimally small psychological effect might influence a club is a question that might be unanswerable. Tottenham Hotspur used to be the holders of the record for the most number of FA Cup wins, but those days are long gone. Over the last couple of months, their form in the Premier League has dipped to such an extent that qualifying for the Champions League, which would have been considered a near certainty not so long ago, is now in serious doubt. Going into this match, the swagger is all with Chelsea, who can treat this as a warm up for a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. Normal service at the top of the Premier League, it might be considered, has been resumed.
The first half of this match begins slowly, almost lethargically. These are players that know each other inside-out, but it is Spurs that look jittery in the opening stages of the match, although they do so without offering Chelsea much more than a considerable amount of’ possession and a couple of pot-shots at the Spurs goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini. As the half wears on, however, Spurs begin to loosen up a little and create a couple of chances. Aaron Lennon works himself a little space to cross from the right, but Rafael Van der Vaart’s header is blocked on the goal-line by John Terry. More by accident than by design, Van der Vaart hits the post with a curling cross-cum-shot which deceives Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal.
Two minutes from half-time, though, the game catches alight with a goal at the end of the pitch. Terry’s long clearance finds Didier Drogba, who accelerates away from William Gallas and thumps an absolutely unstoppable shot past Cudicini and into the top corner of the goal. It’s an absolutely thunderous shot, dripping with the easy arrogance that has come to encapsulate this Chelsea team in recent years, and it’s quite, quite brilliant. Spurs, then, go in at half-time a goal behind having recovered from a poor start to play some tidy football. Not for the first time this afternoon, fortune – or that hex, perhaps – is siding with Chelsea.
Four minutes into the second half comes the moment that will come to define the match. There is an unholy mess on Cudicini’s goal-line following a scramble, when Juan Mata’s low shot strikes a body on the goal-line and bounces away to safety. The ball doesn’t cross the line – it’s at least a foot from the whole of the ball crossing the whole of the line – but referee Martin Atkinson, who can surely only be presumed to not have been able to see the ball at all or not see it cross the line, awards a goal. It’s a shocking decision, an absolutely terrible one, and it changes the tempo of the game altogether.
Five minutes later, Spurs get a goal back. Scott Parker releases Emmanuel Adebayor, who is tripped as he attempts to take the ball around Petr Cech. The ball rolls loose and Gareth Bale touches it over the line for a goal, but had this not happened, they would have faced a penalty kick and a red card for Cech. For the avoidance of doubt, however, it is worth pointing out that Cech should not have been sent off after the goal was given – red cards of that nature can only be given for dangerous play, and not for the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity because a goal was scored.
From here on, however, the Tottenham revival stalls. The flurry of conviction which accompanies the outrage after Mata’s “goal” is awarded swiftly dissipates and, far from spending the remainder of the match on the back foot, Chelsea start to pull away into the distance and, with fourteen minutes left to play, Mata’s pass finds Ramires on he right, and he lifts the ball over the goalkeeper and into goal. With nine minutes to play, a quite magnificent free-kick from Frank Lampard catches Cudicini wrong-footed and flies into the net, and in stoppage time, with the Spurs end of Wembley Stadium already almost completely empty, Mata chips the ball through for Malouda to roll the ball through Cudicini’s legs and complete the rout.
The eventual outcome of this thrashing may well lighten the pressure on referee Martin Atkinson to explain why he gave a goal for a shot which never crossed the line. The rest of us may be left to contemplate how games can swivel on such a tiny axis, and wonder what the outcome of this match might have been had this incident merely have been a defensive scare that Spurs got away with. Chelsea’s superiority came as they relaxed, though it is also fair to point out that Spurs’ eventual capitulation hardly paints a positive picture of what might have happened should Mata’s goal not have been awarded. Ultimately, that hex remains well and truly in place. Chelsea will go into this weeks match against Barcelona full of confidence. Spurs, meanwhile, already clinging onto fourth place in the Premier League by their fingernails, have suffered another psychological blow at a point in the season at which they could least afford it. With six consecutive defeats now in FA Cup semi-finals, Spurs will be waiting at least another year to break this barren period without an FA Cup win.
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