Premier League title race will hinge on Chelsea vs. Spurs FA Cup clash
Antonio Conte might just be thankful there will be no Premier League points at stake when Chelsea face Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday.
With the league leaders suffering a second defeat in four games after losing 2-0 at Manchester United on Sunday, the stumble in falling 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace two weeks ago has now developed into a full-scale wobble.
Spurs, having closed the gap at the top to just four points after a run of seven successive league wins, are now firmly back in the title race and Mauricio Pochettino and his players would have relished the opportunity to take on Chelsea in a crucial title battle this weekend, rather than play for the right to reach the FA Cup final.
But while Saturday is all about the cup -- both teams will now believe they can achieve the double this season -- the result will give the victors a huge psychological boost going into the title run-in. With six games to play, the champions may well be decided by what happens at Wembley.
Chelsea need to stabilise themselves after seeing their lead, which stood at 13 points after Gary Cahill's late winner at Stoke on March 18, whittled down to just four following the defeat at Old Trafford. What better way to do so than by knocking Spurs out of the cup?
Such a result would propel Conte's men into next Tuesday's Premier League game at home to Southampton with renewed confidence and the knowledge they could deliver a second psychological blow by pulling seven points clear of their closest challengers with a win 24 hours before Spurs make the difficult trip to Palace.
But if Chelsea lose this weekend, the pressure going into the Southampton game would be intense.
Ninth-placed Saints have been inconsistent this season, with their weekend defeat at home to Manchester City in stark contrast to their run to the EFL Cup final which was earned by victories against Arsenal and Liverpool.
But they have the ability to cause any opponent problems and with tensions rising at Stamford Bridge, painful memories of last season's 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Saints will be reawakened on a nervy night in West London.
The title remains in Chelsea's hands, with Conte's team needing to drop more points for Spurs to have realistic hope of a late surge to top spot. But their diminishing lead will be a cause for alarm at the club, particularly with recent seasons offering plenty of examples of teams surrendering seemingly commanding positions to miss out on the championship.
United's collapse in 2011-12 remains the most dramatic, with Sir Alex Ferguson's team failing to win the title despite being eight points clear of Manchester City with six games left to play.
On that occasion, Ferguson pinpointed the 4-4 draw at home to Everton as the day when the title slipped from United's grasp, even though his team ended that day three points clear of City at the top of table.
Ferguson knew that the pendulum had swung towards the blue half of the city with Everton's late fightback and that, psychologically, his players had been crushed. City went on to win the Manchester derby at the Etihad eight days later and Roberto Mancini's team eventually finished the season as champions on goal difference.
Two years later, Liverpool moved five points clear of the pack with just three games left to play following a 3-2 win at Norwich in late April. Brendan Rodgers' team were close enough to touch the Premier League trophy, but a Steven Gerrard slip against Chelsea a week later led to a 2-0 defeat, followed by a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace in their next game that opened the door for City to claim the title.
Just as United's title pursuit in 2012 was fatally damaged by the draw against Everton, Liverpool's was sent off course by the loss to Chelsea. The Blues can at least go into the Spurs game this weekend knowing that any defeat will not cost them crucial points in the title race, but in terms of momentum, the outcome of the semifinal will spill over into the league.
The result will either alleviate the pressure on Conte and his players or turn the screw even tighter.
At this stage of any title race, mental strength is as important as the ability to last the pace from a physical perspective, especially when you have led from the front for so long. In that sense, Spurs have nothing to lose, but for Chelsea, it is now all about holding onto something many believe has been theirs for months.
Tottenham's incessant pursuit and impressive recent form has given them hope of a first league title since 1961, but if they are to achieve that, they will have to win on Saturday. After seeing their own title dream die in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge last season, Spurs will certainly go into the semifinal with added motivation to trigger the Chelsea collapse that could send the Premier League trophy to White Hart Lane.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_