Olivier Giroud inspired Chelsea to a 2-0 win over Southampton at Wembley on Sunday that will see the Blues play in their second successive FA Cup final.
The Frenchman, who scored twice against the Saints in the 3-2 Premier League win at St Mary’s a week ago, netted a superb solo effort in the 46th minute of the FA Cup semi-final clash after he had started the game over Alvaro Morata.
After being replaced by the Spaniard, Morata was then able to make amends for his miss against Burnley on Thursday night when he headed in Chelsea’s second to seal a 2-0 victory that keeps the Blues on track to winning a piece of silverware this season.
Chelsea will have to beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final to do that after Jose Mourinho’s men defeated Tottenham 2-1 in their semi-final match on Saturday.
After beating Southampton in the league last weekend, Conte successfully changed his tactics from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 formation featuring two strikers to inspire Chelsea to a 2-1 win away to Burnley on Thursday night.
But the Italian decided against having Giroud start up front with Morata for the trip to Wembley as the Frenchman took up the lone striker role, with Eden Hazard and Willian being restored to the starting line-up.
And it was clear to see in the opening minutes of the match how much the return of Hazard and Willian were causing Southampton problems – with the Belgian firing over the bar in just the fifth minute before the Brazilian hit the bar with his seventh-minute shot from the right flank.
Chelsea firmly controlled the opening stages of the match, with Southampton only having their first shot on target in the 25th minute through Mario Lemina, whose low drive was comfortably claimed by Willy Caballero.
And the longer Chelsea went without scoring, the more the Saints grew in confidence as Mark Hughes’ side went about containing the Blues’ attackers while they patiently created attacking moves of their own.
The frustration at his side’s lack of penetration was clear to see on Conte’s face when Giroud sent an acrobatic effort wide of the goal with six minutes left on the clock in the first half.
But Conte’s side came out after the break a different side, and it was Giroud who got the opener after he latched onto Hazard’s pass, danced in and out of four Saints players and then drove the ball past Alex McCarthy with the outside of his boot.
The goal injected Chelsea with confidence, and the Blues could have had another moments later when Willian’s ball into Hazard ended in the Belgian curling an effort wide.
That shot came moments after Shane Long had gone down in the box under pressure from Antonio Rudiger, although replays suggested the referee was right not to award a penalty.
Southampton felt they should have had another spot-kick, this time when Long was seemingly pushed down by Gary Cahill but, again, it wasn’t awarded.
Despite those unanswered calls for a penalty, the Saints pushed men forward and had a glorious opportunity to score when Charlie Austin’s dummy saw the ball fly to Long, who only had to beat Caballero but instead drove wide.
Caballero was then needed to keep out a powerful effort from Nathan Redmond, with the Argentine making a crucial block with his leg to deny the Saints substitute.
Hughes’ side kept searching for an equaliser and thought they had it when Caballero fumbled the ball over his own line. However, Martin Atkinson blew for a foul on the goalkeeper, who had been backed into the goal by Austin as he had tried to claim the ball.
Conte’s decision to take off Giroud for Morata paid off when the Spaniard headed in Azpilicueta’s fine cross from the right that ensured a 2-0 win for Chelsea that will see Conte and Mourinho go head-to-head for the FA Cup trophy in May.
Source: UK Evening Standard