LONDON (Reuters) - When Chelsea’s team sheet materialised showing Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final it seemed Antonio Conte had handed the initiative to his Tottenham Hotspur counterpart Mauricio Pochettino.
By the end of the match, with Chelsea celebrating an enthralling 4-2 victory at Wembley, the Italian looked like a genius.
It was one of those days when everything he tried worked wonders and the nature of the win can surely propel Chelsea to the Premier League and FA Cup double.
It was dynamic Brazilian Willian, largely a fringe player this season but who started in place of Belgian dangerman Hazard, who twice put Chelsea ahead with a sublime early free kick and a penalty, only for Spurs to twice level through Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
With an hour remaining and Tottenham, leaders Chelsea’s only rivals in the title race, in the ascendancy Conte sent on Hazard and Costa with Willian and Michy Batshuayi making way.
Fifteen minutes later Hazard crashed home a lethal shot from fellow substitute Cesc Fabregas’s corner for his 15th goal of the season to flatten Spurs.
Nemanja Matic’s rocket sealed it but it was Conte’s clever use of his squad - a key factor throughout his first season in charge - that proved telling in a gripping game.
He explained his cunning plan afterwards, saying the proximity of Tuesday’s vital home league game against Southampton had been central to his thinking.
“We knew we have three tough games, one a semi-final which was our top priority and on Tuesday we play against a team that has been resting for 10 days,” the Italian told reporters.
”I had to make a strong decision and take responsibility. It’s not easy to start without two really important players in Diego and Eden but you have to take responsibility.
“I told my players to stay in the game and the more time that passed would be better for us. In the last 30 minutes I decided to put on Eden and Diego and then Cesc who was also very important for us,” he added.
“I was pleased for Willian. I‘m pleased I involved all the players because every single player feels part of the project.”
With Tottenham having built up a head of steam with seven successive league wins to close the gap at the top to four points, Conte said beating them was the perfect way to start a crucial week for his team who also go to Everton next Sunday.
“It’s a really important win against a team who is fighting us for the title and we have to try to exploit the momentum after this,” said Conte, whose side will face Arsenal or Manchester City in the final.
“This week is crucial. Tottenham have the advantage because we play two and a half days after this and they have an extra day before they play Crystal Palace who play tomorrow,” Conte added.
”Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the dynamic of the fixtures but we have to accept it.
“We have to be focused and now have two days to recover because we have a very tough game and we know that Tottenham want to fight all the way to the end for the title.”
Editing by Ed Osmond