FA Cup semi-finals: The key battles

The Easter weekend sees Wembley host the FA Cup semi-finals, with Premier League title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool facing off just a week after their titanic tussle at the Etihad.

 

City v Liverpool will grab much of the build-up to semi-final weekend but the other match is an intriguing contest with European champions Chelsea taking on London rivals Crystal Palace.

 

Both matches promise to be unmissable contests – where will the key battles be at Wembley?

 

Manchester City v Liverpool

 

City’s FA Cup record under Pep Guardiola is not particularly good, winning the competition just once, but Liverpool’s is even worse – they have not even reached the final under Jurgen Klopp.

 

Saturday’s clash will see much depend on who wins the battle down the flanks. Mohamed Salah, out in front in the race for the Premier League’s Golden Boot, is again likely to come up against Joao Cancelo, who has become City’s regular pick on the left side of defence.

 

Salah has lost form in recent weeks, with the ‘Egyptian King’ seemingly seeing his confidence dented by defeat to Sadio Mane’s Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations, which was followed a few weeks later by losing to the same opposition to miss out on qualification for the World Cup.

 

Another factor in the key battle of Salah v Cancelo is the role of Trent Alexander-Arnold. While the right-back has recorded more Premier League assists than anyone else this season, fresh questions were asked about his defensive abilities after the game at the Etihad last weekend.

 

Alexander-Arnold, popping up on the left side of Liverpool’s defence, appeared to lose his concentration when allowing Gabriel Jesus to steal in behind him to finish off Cancelo’s peach of a pass. Klopp will not want to curb Alexander-Arnold’s attacking instincts but City exploited the space in behind him to ruthless effect on Sunday, so perhaps there could be a better balance. However, Alexander-Arnold’s deft assist for Diogo Jota to tuck home showed all his quality too.

 

In the middle of the pitch, Fabinho will have to do more to keep Kevin De Bruyne in check if the Reds are to reach the FA Cup final for the first time in a decade. Although it was a large deflection that saw De Bruyne’s shot fly in for the opener last weekend, the Belgian playmaker had drifted past Fabinho far too easily to find room outside the box to unleash a powerful strike.

 

Fabinho lost that battle in the first half but improved greatly after the interval, though had City been more clinical in front of goal they may well have been out of sight by the half-time break.

 

De Bruyne has scored five goals in five domestic appearances and he was on target from the penalty spot in the defeat of Southampton in the last round to book City’s latest trip to Wembley. He was also named man of the match when City blew Watford away in the final three years ago.

 

Chelsea v Crystal Palace

 

Chelsea would have already been strong favourites to reach the FA Cup final for a third year in a row, but the absence of Conor Gallagher due to his loan terms is a further blow for Palace. Replacing Gallagher’s seemingly limitless energy in midfield, as well as his goal threat, will be a major challenge for Eagles boss Patrick Vieira, who won the FA Cup five times as a player.

 

Palace’s top scorer is Wilfried Zaha and he will take on even more responsibility given the absence of Gallagher, with Thomas Tuchel likely to field Reece James against the winger. Zaha appears to be happier at Selhurst Park than at any time in either of his spells at his hometown club, with Vieira adding more excitement and creativity to help the Ivory Coast winger out. Zaha cannot ignore his job defensively, though, with James a major attacking outlet for Chelsea.

 

The England international has six goals and nine assists in all competitions this season, though he is yet to start in the FA Cup this term. Chelsea are a different proposition when James is fit and in form, with his battle against the skills of Zaha down the Palace left set to be decisive.

 

Chelsea have a wealth of options in midfield, but Mason Mount will be one of the first names on Tuchel’s team sheet. Mount was brilliant in the rout of Southampton at the weekend, scoring twice and adding an assist to take his tally to 18 goal contributions in the Premier League.

 

Charged with tracking Mount’s intelligent movement in the final third will be Cheikhou Kouyate, back as a midfield mainstay this season having played much of last term in central defence. Senegal international Kouyate is in good form and, with talks over a new contract ongoing, this will be the ideal opportunity for the 32-year-old to show his importance to Vieira’s flying Eagles.

 

 

Author: Lucas Carlson