The Blues take on Manchester City tomorrow at Wembley looking to secure their place in the FA Cup final
How much of an influence has Pep Guardiola been on your career?
“Huge influence because when he was coach of Barcelona, I was watching almost every game. I was very impressed by the way they made success happen with the style they were playing: the academy guys, offensive football, ball possession.
“The most impressive thing about the team was the mentality of how they defended when they lost the ball. I learned a lot from watching the games and understanding more of the game; how adventurous and brave you can approach games.
“So it was a big, big lesson. At this time I was a coach at the academy and then became a coach at Mainz. Almost every game was a lesson in these days and then later we had the opportunity to play against him. It wasn’t always a pleasure but then you arrive at a certain level and it was a pleasure to meet him and play against him at the highest level.”
You’ve never beaten Guardiola as a coach, so do you go into tomorrow’s game as the underdog?
“Yes and no. We have to accept that there is a gap between us and Manchester City.
“If you look at the results in the Premier League and the fixtures in the last years we have to accept this. And it’s important that we accept this without making ourselves too small.
“So from next year on, from day one of next season, we will hunt them, try to close the gap between us. And this the benchmark.
“For me in Europe there are two teams who are the benchmark, there is Bayern Munich and Manchester City. But of course, he [Guardiola] made it impossible for us to compete with Mainz.
“I think we had two draws with Dortmund and then a cup final in a penalty loss, and another draw at home with Dortmund. We came close. It’s time that we beat them, and the next try is tomorrow.
“I don’t believe in how big clubs are, how tough or are we equal or not. We have to admit there is a gap but for 90 minutes we are very self-aware and very self-confident that we believe we can close the gap for one game. And this is the target for tomorrow.
“I arrive with a team that I am happy to compete with against the benchmark in England and Europe. We want the momentum of football on our side, and to play at the top level it’s not to force things, and we’ll need a bit of luck.”
What kind of game will it be?
“I don’t feel that both teams are like chess teams. I think English football, City’s game, our game is about intensity without the ball. So I expect a very high-intensity, demanding match.
“City define themselves with a clear DNA and style. They want the ball, high possession, high ball recoveries. We want that too so we have to fight for these moments and make them suffer.
“We have to be on point and have precision with our passing and position if we want to hurt them. Then we need to be on them every minute, that we do not allow easy chances and exploitation of spaces between our lines.
“We need to be very brave, play with courage, be adventurous and do what’s needed. It’s a big challenge and it’s the right moment for us to face a challenge like this. I expect a tough challenge a physical game. I hope we catch the moments where we can make them suffer so it becomes an even game.”
What would a win tomorrow do for you and the players in determining where you are at the moment?
We are in a good moment. We had a setback against West Brom but we had an excellent response.
“We had tough challenges to face and we did two very good matches, two intense matches. It was a big challenge against Porto with a lot of pressure and different situations. We arrived in the first leg where everything is open and we arrived in the second leg as favourites.
“We had to manage the game, the results and influences from outside [in the second leg against Porto]. I was very proud with how we did this. We did what had to be done, we deserved a clean sheet and a win. We conceded a late goal and we lost 1-0, but if you are going to lose then lose a second leg after you’ve won the first 2-0. So it didn’t impact us.
“It’s a good moment to play City and Pep. They are, with Bayern Munich, the benchmark in Europe in my option.
“If we manage to beat Manchester City it will be a huge boost. If not we will have to take it as a challenge and opportunity to grow because we have big fights coming up. It’s not only about the FA Cup, it’s about the top-four race and the Champions League.”
You’ve got so much competition for your attacking positions. What is the dynamic between the attacking players?
“We picked the same offensive guys against Crystal Palace and the second leg Porto. So the other guys need to fight for their places and they are doing this. There isn’t much training time between the games with the schedule we have. So in the minutes you have, you need to use.
“As you can imagine, if you have good results, momentum, qualify for semi-finals, in terms of the atmosphere and the behaviour in the dressing room we are in a good moment.
“It’s very important in these moments that the guys who lack minutes, self-confidence, and maybe not super happy with their personal situation, put their ego aside and do everything to be ready.
“That is what this club is about. We have no promises to make, no gifts to give. Everybody has to fight hard for their place. If they are in the team, they have to fight to stay there. Once you get any minutes, you fight hard to make the coach make a change. This is the life for a player at Chelsea. It’s big fun and you have embrace the situation even if it’s a bit harder for some players.
“We try to push them, try to convince them and influence them in a positive way. We have a tight schedule and we can’t drop one percent.”
What’s the team news? Is N’Golo Kante fit for 90 minutes, could Billy Gilmour come into your thinking?
“Both yes. We have the green light for N’Golo because we’ve had three days between games that make a huge difference.
“Mateo is unfortunately still out. He is feeling better but can’t be in the squad. And Andreas Christensen is out and can’t be in the squad. That is the situation.”
Chelsea have had great strikers over the years, would you ever consider playing a front two?
“I’ll do what I’ve always done from when I started coaching in the academy and later in professional football: I do what I think is best for the team and I adapt to the quality of my players.
“If I have guys who need to be on the pitch and double strikers, we will find a way to play with double strikers. If we have guys who absolutely need to be on the pitch as a No9, we play with a single No9. It depends and we adapt to the quality of the players.
“Please don’t forget I love all these guys you mentioned. I love Vialli, I love Drogba, I love Torres, I love them. This is a huge part when I think about Chelsea.
“When you look at our line-up in the Champions League and you look at our offensive players or against Crystal Palace, it was Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Reece James, they are 20, 21, 22. Timo is also 24 so don’t compare the big guys in their best age with guys who are 20 and 21. Don’t do this mistake.
“Why should I dream of Vialli and Van Basten and Gary Lineker and the next of the best No.9s in the world? We have what we have and I am super happy with what we have and we have strong strikers, we have strong half strikers and we do what is best for the team and I am absolutely happy with what we have and we will push them and that is the situation.
You spoke about Christian Pulisic needing to feel calmer, is that in regard to trusting his body?
He’s made huge progress. He was fantastic in the last games and maybe I can’t explain it better – to be calm, to trust himself in terms of injury, in terms of his full fitness, his capability and maybe be a bit more calm and self-confidence in being aware that I trust him and these things.
“These things are important for him to show his full potential. Once he is them he is a huge player and he has now big, big performances because he has a huge impact physically and in terms of quality, dribbling runs, arriving in the box in crucial moments.
“He’s stepped up and this is what I know about him. I am very happy about this in the last weeks and games.”