Football

Conte hails team's resolve after Chelsea book FA Cup semi-final spot

Blues manager says grit and desire earn them FA Cup semi-final spot

Pedro Rodriguez came off the bench to keep Chelsea's chances of silverware alive with an extra-time winner in a 2-1 victory at Leicester City that saw them reach the FA Cup semi-finals yesterday morning (Singapore time).

Alvaro Morata's first goal since Boxing Day on his return to the Chelsea starting line-up put the visitors on course to bounce back from their Champions League elimination by Barcelona in midweek.

However, Jamie Vardy's equaliser 15 minutes from time made them do it the hard way in an extra 30 minutes.

Yet, for all of Antonio Conte's complaints this season about his side's dearth of depth, the Italian was able to call on Pedro to turn the game in Chelsea's favour when he headed home former Leicester favourite N'Golo Kante's cross.

And Conte hailed his players' physical and mental strength to shrug off their Champions League disappointment.

"After a game like the Barcelona game - don't forget we spent a lot of energy - to play 120 minutes tonight with this weather, it wasn't easy," said Conte of his side's resolve in freezing conditions.

"We showed a great desire, great will to fight, great will to reach the semi-finals and to go for the second time in a row to Wembley."

Chelsea had lost three of their past four matches to fall behind in the race for a top-four finish in the English Premier League as well as crash out of Europe.

But they will fancy their chances of reaching the FA Cup final for the second time in as many years under Conte after drawing EPL strugglers Southampton in the last four.

Manchester United will take on Tottenham Hotspur in the other semi-final clash on April 21.

Yet, the biggest plus of all for Conte going forward may be Morata's return to form after a torrid time in 2018 as both form and fitness deserted Chelsea's £70 million (S$128.5m) club-record buy from Real Madrid.

Morata had a point to prove after being left out of the Spain squad on Friday just three months ahead of the World Cup.

And he looked keen to make the most of just his second start since the sides last met in a 0-0 draw in early January.

"For sure, for the striker it's very important to score," said the 48-year-old Conte.

"For Alvaro it was very important to score, but at the same time I am very pleased for his performance.

"He showed great character, he showed to be strong.

"This goal will be very important for the future for us."

Morata's assuredness as he clipped the ball beyond the advancing Kasper Schmeichel in the 42nd minute was unbefitting of a striker who had gone 13 games without a goal.

As the visitors began to tire in the second half, the Foxes started to look more threatening.

Leicester manager Claude Puel insisted that his side should have built on Vardy's equaliser.

"I'm a bit upset at the moment because I think we deserved another result," said the Frenchman.

"They found a good clinical edge.

"Morata's goal was the only chance of the first half.

"It was harsh to concede just before half-time, but we came back with more calm and more quality."

Crucially, though, Conte was able to refresh his side as Pedro, Gary Cahill and Olivier Giroud were all introduced in the first half of extra-time.

And it was Pedro who proved the match winner in unfamiliar fashion as he rose to outjump Schmeichel and nod into an unguarded net. - AFP

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