FA CUP SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW: Even though they are denied arguably their player of the season, Crystal Palace fans are approaching Sunday’s big match with nothing-to-lose optimism
Crystal Palace will never have a better chance of beating the world champions and making it through to the FA Cup final than on Sunday at Wembley.
With Palace looking at securing their best-ever finish in the Premier League, playing some seamless and fluid football in Patrick Vieira’s first season in charge at Selhurst Park, you just had to look at Chelsea’s players after the final whistle at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, slumped on the turf, demoralised and dejected. They had collectively just beaten Real Madrid in their own backyard, yet had seen the end of their defence of the Champions League with a 5-4 aggregate defeat.
Those 120 minutes less than five days before the FA Cup semi-final will still be in the Chelsea players’ legs come Sunday afternoon, painfully so for some. Chelsea had looked tired, off the pace, in the last half-hour of normal time in Madrid, and the extra 30minutes will have compounded that weariness at the end of a long season.
That was Chelsea’s fourth match in 10 days. Palace have played just twice in the same period. Vieira will have looked at the first of those Chelsea games, Brentford’s stunning 4-1 win at Stamford Bridge, for his inspiration to unpick Thomas Tuchel’s side and reach the FA Cup final for only the third time in Eagles history.
With one notable exception, Vieira has a full-strength squad to choose from on Sunday, with defender Tyrick Mitchell and midfielder Michael Olise both expected to be fit to play, if not to start.
There had been concerns, with Olise having suffered a foot injury while away with France’s under-21 side last month. Mitchell was substituted as a precaution in the 34th minute of the defeat at Leicester on Sunday, where Palace minds seemed already set on this weekend’s challenges.
Although Mitchell is likely to start at left-back, it remains to be seen whether Vieira will risk Olise from the start. Jordan Ayew is an option, having started in Olise’s absence. His ability to press from the front will also give Vieira a decision to make.
Of course, taking on the likes of Mount and Havertz, Rudiger and Kante will still represent a massive challenge for Palace, who have lost their last nine games to Chelsea. The bookmakers have Palace at 5/1 to win on Sunday; Chelsea are 1/2 hot favourites.
But those odds overlook the physical, and psychological, impact of the past month or so on the Chelsea players. They are very much at the end of an era – the Abramovich era.
With many of the Chelsea squad’s core players’ futures up in the air, after losing the League Cup final on penalties and their European exit, with the Premier League title out of sight, it all means that the FA Cup, and that showpiece Wembley final against Liverpool or City next month, is now the only silverware available to Chelsea at the end of the Russian oligarch’s ownership.
On Tuesday, after Chelsea played Real off the pitch in an adrenaline-fuelled whirlwind first hour, key players looked to be running on empty. At some point on Sunday, rouble-funded determination could make way for desperation, and Vieira’s team have shown themselves this season to be capable of exploiting that.
Before the distracted defeat at Leicester, Palace were on an unbeaten run of seven games in all competitions, including impressive performances against Arsenal, Manchester City and Wolves. And they have long ago moved on from being a “one-man team”, overly dependent on Wilfried Zaha’s brilliance, with Marc Guehi, Mitchell and Conor Gallagher all earning senior England caps this season.
The Gallagher situation will be the elephant in Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
Gallagher has, for many Eagles fans, been the stand-out Palace player of the 2021-2022 season, scoring eight times and making five assists. But the 22-year-old is a player registered with Chelsea, on loan in south London, and his parent club won’t allow him on the pitch on Sunday.
Chelsea boss Tuchel said today that he has apologised to Gallagher for his enforced exclusion. “I had a chance to speak to Conor and could see his frustration,” Tuchel said. Tuchel said that he had had a chance encounter with the player at a restaurant.
“We had a chat, the subject came up and I apologised,” he said.
“It’s the way it is. We play to win the game and the rules were clear when we made the loan. I can understand the disappointment of Conor.”
Gallagher has played in all four of Palace’s FA Cup matches so far this season, as well as making 27 Premier League appearances.
“He has played all the games so far and if there’s somebody who deserves to be in the semi-final, it’s him because of his performances,” Vieira said last week. “I’m disappointed he won’t be able to play.
“I think the decision for Chelsea to send him on loan is to play these kinds of games. We have, as a group, an opportunity to play an important game and that game will give him more confidence and belief.
“We could lose but for him to be on the field is what he needs to keep developing himself.
“It’s not the best rule because the only one who will lose is Conor,” said Vieira. “Playing that kind of game, the importance of it, it’s an experience the player is missing and I’m disappointed for him.”
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