Tottenham Hotspur enter the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea on Sunday as the clear underdogs. This isn't a surprise. Take away the 5-3 thumping Spurs put on the Blues on the first of January and it's been a looooong time since they've last beaten Chelsea: you have to go back to a 2-1 home victory in April of 2010.
Therefore, in some ways it's kind of nice to note that Chelsea seem to be taking this match dreadfully seriously. There's a respect given by Chelsea players and fans towards Tottenham after the January dismantling, and it's clear from Jose Mourinho's comments as well as various not-quite-100%-confident postings on Chelsea boards that the Blues aren't as convinced that they're going to waltz their way to another trophy this time around.
Of course, that cuts both ways. When you're an underdog, sometimes your best weapon is the fact that your opponent overlooks you. That won't happen this time. Combine the previous win with a weakened Chelsea midfield, throw in a dash of referee bias and mix with a generous helping of potential revenge, and you have one pissed-off Chelsea team that would like nothing better than to curb-stomp their north London neighbors into the Wembley turf, no matter what color that Godforsaken arch happens to be.
The weakened midfield comes primarily from the (unjust?)
three- two-match ban on midfield marshall Nemanja Matic that keeps him out of this match. Matic is rightfully considered one of the best DMs in the world, and when you combine his absence with the injury to Jon Obi Mikel, you end up with a Cesc Fabregas - Ramires midfield that, frankly, shouldn't scare much of anyone.
That's not to say that Chelsea doesn't have a stocked arsenal of offensive talent, though. The presumptive front ranks of Oscar, Eden Hazard, Willian, and Diego Costa still possess enough offensive firepower to wet the britches of most EPL defenses, thank you very much, recent home draw to Burnley notwithstanding. Throw in a right back who has a knack for scoring and creating goals like Branislav Ivanovic (who will likely be up against Danny Rose in a matchup that already gives me the vapors) and the best goalkeeper on the planet not named Manuel Neuer, and there's a reason why bookkeepers still give Chelsea 1/3 odds to win.
For Tottenham, meanwhile, the question is less about who's healthy (everyone), but who's going to play. Tottenham are coming off of an absolutely brutal stretch of games that saw them play four matches (including Sunday's) in ten days, leading Mauricio Pochettino to severely rotate in order to keep his players fresh. It... hasn't gone well. Spurs haven't won since the North London Derby and have seen them eke out a last-gasp draw against West Ham and get bounced out of the Europa League by Chelsea loanee Mohamed Salah and an in-form Fiorentina squad. In some ways this cup final comes at the worst possible time.
So who WILL we see line up for Spurs tomorrow? In short, tired legs aside, the strongest possible side. Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, and Nabil Bentaleb have been Spurs' most consistent players, and should be the first on the scoresheet. In the absence of Matic, expect Spurs to deploy the same high, persistent counter-pressing system that they utilized so effectively against Chelsea in January and less effectively more recently against West Ham. This means Eriksen and Erik Lamela as inside forwards, and Mousa Dembele playing in the hole behind Kane. As we've noted before, the success of the press has lately depended on the play of Dembele; if he can harry Ramires and Chelsea's center backs effectively, Spurs become that much more difficult to carve open through the middle.
Likewise, the play of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb in the pivot is essential. Mason is a workhorse, but he can be a defensive liability when the press breaks down. He and Bentaleb, who will continue to share attacking and defense responsibilities in the pivot, must be on point if Spurs are to have a chance to win.
It's possible too that we may see Nacer Chadli start at the expense of Dembele, shifting Christian Eriksen to the #10, but I would instead suggest that Chadli is likely to be a late-game super-sub in the event that Dembele tires or we're chasing a goal.
Defensively is where Spurs' biggest issues lie. Eric Dier is a decent enough defender compared to Federico Fazio, but where Fazio's Achilles heel is his pace, Dier's is his relative inexperience. Diego Costa can be a handful for any defender, which makes the defensive acumen of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose so critical. Given a choice, I'd prefer to see Ben Davies play for his defense at the expense of bombing runs up the pitch on the left side, but that's mostly because the idea of Danny Rose holding his own against Willian and Ivanovic while Eriksen drifts inside keeps me up at night. Rose especially needs consistent positional awareness and less tactical derps for those moments when Spurs' press does break down (and it will).
That all said, this is the lineup I expect tomorrow:
Will it be enough? Hard to say. On paper, no. But on paper, Spurs should've been blown out of the water in January, too. That's the beauty of a neutral pitch in a cup final: anything can happen. Sometimes good things. And sometimes, even more rarely but not fully out of the realm of possibility, good things even happen to Tottenham Hotspur.