Chelsea can build on recent positive momentum in FA Cup semi-final vs. Southampton
Chelsea's 2-1 victory over Burnley on Thursday night was full of surprises.
For a start, Antonio Conte chose to make six changes from the side that won 3-2 at Southampton on Saturday to make a mockery of the old maxim of never tinkering with a winning team. Given the Italian's general reluctance to rotate his squad, the amount of alterations raised a few eyebrows and seemed to indicate that his focus was firmly on Sunday's FA Cup semi-final with Southampton rather than carrying on fighting for a top-four finish in the league.
Although understandable due to the gap to Tottenham (now five points), it still left a disappointing impression seeing that qualifying for the Champions League was, and is, still mathematically within Chelsea's reach. As it turned out, Conte was thoroughly vindicated by an excellent team performance.
The match saw Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata paired from the start for the first time and they caught the eye by dovetailing beautifully, a surprise to anyone who saw the disjointed last 10 minutes of the 3-1 defeat to Spurs earlier this month. Their movement complemented each other startlingly well, despite them sharing similar characteristics, with Giroud showing that he has much better touch than had previously been supposed. All that was lacking was a goal from one of them, and although Morata will be frustrated that he failed to take any of his opportunities, the bigger picture was much more positive than his tantrum on the sidelines might have suggested.
On a broader perspective, the victory made it back-to-back wins for the Blues for the first time since December, a telling statistic that desperately needed rectifying. That it came against the form team in the division was encouraging and even more gratifying was that Chelsea recovered from the shock concession of a freak goal to re-establish their authority and lead within a matter of minutes. That strength of character had been sorely lacking in the past couple of months.
Add to all that an improved and coherent performance from the much-maligned Tiemoue Bakayoko, whose confidence grew as the game progressed, a dynamic and thrusting offering from Pedro and an increasingly rare display of experience and intelligence from Gary Cahill and it all amounted to a good day at the office for the players and management. It is almost certainly too little, too late to affect their top-four ambitions though at least it highlights a benign spirit within the squad.
With silverware still in the offing via the FA Cup, this slight but burgeoning air of positivity is appearing at a good time. It has also left Conte with the unfamiliar feeling of a having a pleasant selection headache. It is safe to assume that he will return to his favoured 3-4-3 at Wembley with Eden Hazard and Willian flanking a central striker, though he now knows that a front two of Morata and Giroud is a definite option. Should Chelsea be in need of a "Plan B" on Sunday, then Conte has a ready-made alternative up his sleeve.
That in turn may also prompt Conte into starting Emerson Palmieri at left wing-back. The Brazilian filled the breach left by Marcos Alonso's three-match suspension in Lancashire and did so very ably. Defensively, he was rock solid against the searing pace of Aaron Lennon while also delivering some wicked crosses into the box. If two target men are to be deployed at any stage then a natural left-footer on that flank is a must.
Bakayoko didn't do enough to earn a place ahead of Cesc Fabregas but there will be greater belief that he can affect the game should he be required. The same is true of Cahill who is likely to be replaced by Andreas Christensen but remains the senior figure within the squad and exhibited those qualities at Turf Moor.
Chelsea should be buoyed and confident heading into the semi-final not least when reflecting on their past week. Though the first hour at St Mary's last Saturday saw them deservedly behind, the manner of their victory will have given everyone a boost that will only have been enhanced by Thursday's result. Conte has also seen the best that Southampton can offer while knowing that his team can improve further and will need to in order to guarantee a place in the final.
Given Chelsea's erratic season to date and subsequently dented egos, there should be no complacency anywhere within the squad. And with it looking increasingly like being Conte's final few weeks in West London he would surely like nothing better than to end it in a final and by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley. Motivation and focus should not be lacking on Sunday.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.