London (AFP) – Mauricio Pochettino has warned Chelsea that success starved Tottenham are ready to underline their arrival as a major force by knocking the Premier League leaders out of the FA Cup this weekend.
Pochettino’s vibrant young side have emerged as the only serious opposition to Chelsea in the title race and on Saturday they face the acid test of their credentials when they resume hostilities with their London rivals in the semi-finals at Wembley.
Booking an FA Cup final place for the first time since they last won the competition in 1991 would be a huge psychological boost for a club dogged by decades of failure to turn potential into prizes.
It is nine years since Tottenham won the League Cup for their last major trophy, while their wait to be crowned English champions stretches back to 1961.
Pochettino’s inspired work on the training ground has earned plenty of plaudits during his two and a half year reign, but the impressive Argentine knows some critics doubt the mental strength of his players after they choked when they had a chance to wrestle the title from Leicester’s grasp last season.
Led by England internationals Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Tottenham are a more formidable force now and like Chelsea they had four players named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year earlier this week.
Pochettino’s team head to Wembley on the back of a seven-match winning run that has lifted them within four points of Chelsea in the title race.
And they face opponents who look vulnerable for the first time this term after last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Manchester United and a recent shock loss to Crystal Palace.
Pochettino heaped a little more pressure on Antonio Conte’s men by claiming their wealth of experience makes them favourites on Saturday, but he was quick to remind the Blues his own group are on the verge of fulfilling their potential.
“If there is one favourite it’s more Chelsea because they are on the top in the Premier League. Their players and manager have experience,” Pochettino said.
“We are talking of the team that maybe in the last five years has won European competitions, a manager that won the league with Juventus in Italy.
“When you fight the likes of Chelsea, you compare the players and they have players that won World Cups.
“I think it’s a more experienced team than us. Our players have not won much, maybe some players have some titles (with other clubs).
“But we’re in a good moment too We’re a hungry team and we’re improving a lot.
“To challenge this type of club is a very important thing for Tottenham.”
– Wembley woes –
Tottenham can take heart from their 2-0 win over Chelsea at White Hart Lane in January, a dominant display that ended the west Londoners’ 13-match winning streak in the league.
But Chelsea won their other encounter this season, 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in November, and hope to capitalise on Tottenham’s Wembley woes.
Tottenham used the national stadium for their Champions League and Europa League home fixtures this season, but won just once in four games as they crashed out of both competitions.
With Thibaut Courtois sidelined by an ankle injury, Asmir Begovic is set to start in goal for Chelsea as they chase a first FA Cup final appearance since 2012.
“It’s great to play in those kind of games, semi-finals and finals. I hope to be a part of it,” Begovic said.
“That’s the reason why you play for a club like this.
“It’s important for me to perform in every game and hopefully the manager will trust me to take things forward.”
In Sunday’s semi-final, beleaguered Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will be back in the spotlight when his side face Manchester City.
Wenger has been under fire from fans calling for his resignation throughout a lacklustre campaign and he has yet to announce if he will extend his 21-year reign beyond this season.
A Wembley win would be a welcome tonic for Wenger, but he insists Cup glory won’t factor into the decision on his future.
“The FA Cup is a very important game for me because it’s an opportunity to win a trophy this season. So of course we are all fully focused on that. My future is Sunday,” he said.
Fixtures (both matches at Wembley)
Chelsea v Tottenham (1615 GMT)
Arsenal v Manchester City (1400 GMT)