Antonio Conte praised Chelsea’s character to overcome Leicester City in extra time to reach the FA Cup semifinals, but insisted that they will not enjoy an easy path to the final against Southampton.
Jamie Vardy sent Sunday’s hotly-contested tie at the King Power Stadium into extra time when he fired in from close range on 76 minutes to cancel out Alvaro Morata’s first-half opener, but Pedro Rodriguez came off the substitutes’ bench to head in the winning goal for the visitors in the 105th minute.
After the match Conte highlighted the physical burden his players had shouldered just three days after exiting the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona, and singled out Morata — who broke a 13-match scoring drought — for praise.
“We must be pleased for the character we showed in this game against a really good team,” Conte said. “Don’t forget, in the last game at home [in the Premier League] we suffered a lot against Leicester. They’re a really good team with great players and great talent.
“After a game in the Champions League, it wasn’t easy for us to play 120 minutes in this way. Tonight we fought a lot. We fought a lot and showed a great desire and will to fight and to go to reach the semifinals, and go for the second time in a row to Wembley.”
On the subject of Morata’s performance, he added: “As you know very well for the striker, it’s very important to score. But at the same time, I’m very pleased with his performance because he played a good game, he showed great character and that he is strong. I think this goal will be very important for the future for us.”
The FA Cup semifinal draw brought more good news for Conte, as Manchester United and Tottenham drew each other while Chelsea were paired with Southampton, who overcame Wigan Athletic earlier on Sunday.
Conte, however, was in no mood to celebrate Chelsea’s favourable draw. “When you arrive at this point of the tournament, it’s very difficult to consider a game ‘easy’,” he insisted. “Don’t forget Manchester City were eliminated against Wigan. I think we must be ready to fight to try to reach the final at Wembley for the second time in a row. It will be very important for us, but we have to know that Southampton have the same idea as us.”
The one negative on the night for Chelsea was the performance of Tiemoue Bakayoko, who capped an error-strewn display on his first start in more than a month with a yellow card in first-half injury time, before being replaced by Cesc Fabregas at the interval.
“It was a decision because he took a yellow card and, as you know very well, we are talking about a player with great physicality,” Conte confirmed. “In a game like this, you have to prevent and try to avoid a second yellow card. Only for this reason I decided to change him after the first half.”
Explaining his other substitutions, Conte added: “Willian was very tired. He played a fantastic game with the ball, without the ball. He is in fantastic physical condition and I’m very pleased with his commitment and his contribution, [but] we decided to take this decision because he was very, very tired.
“The same for [Andreas] Christensen. He was tired after a game like Barcelona, when we expended a lot of energy. To play 120 minutes tonight with this weather was not easy.”