Jamie Vardy’s pre-match diet consists of a couple of cans of Red Bull but one of the Southampton defenders tasked with keeping the striker quiet at Wembley on Sunday relies on another fuel to give him wings: maté tea, a traditional South American drink. “It’s a very good thing, which hydrates you before the game and it also kind of wakes you up,” says Jan Bednarek. “You feel more energised, you feel fresher and it is a nice routine to relax. I drink it with Prowsey [James Ward-Prowse]. I used to drink it with Pierre [-Emile Højbjerg] and I think he still does even though he is at Spurs.”
Bednarek, who has made more interceptions (68) than any other player in the Premier League this season, knows he will have to be on his toes to tame Vardy and the in-form Kelechi Iheanacho (the Leicester striker has nine goals in his past six games) when the teams meet to contest a spot in the FA Cup final. Vardy, like Bednarek’s idol and international teammate Robert Lewandowski, has proved an evergreen performer and in the summer he could come up against another in the shape of the 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, when Poland take on Sweden at the European Championship.
“The difference between a good player and a great player is consistency,” says Bednarek, who played for his country in defeat at Wembley last month. “It’s about showing every single game that you have that quality. That’s what Vardy does, it’s what Lewandowski is doing, and it’s what Ibrahimovic is doing. Every single game – even if their performance is not at the highest level – they do one or two things to turn the tables and win. That’s why they are the best. Lewandowski is the best example of what you can achieve because he’s very talented, obviously, but every single time you see how he takes care of himself – [he eats the] right food, [practises] free-kicks after training, [he does] everything he can to become as good as he can.”
The same can be said for Bednarek, who is a stickler for detail and marginal gains. His love for maté, a drink popular with Marcelo Bielsa and Mauricio Pochettino, stemmed from sampling it on international duty with the Hertha Berlin striker Krzysztof Piatek and, last year, the centre-back went gluten-free after a coeliac test revealed it could help him become fitter. “It was a simple decision to try to avoid it for my body to feel better.”
The 25-year-old also uses a psychologist, Damian Salwin, who works with the Poland team. “If you have a fitness coach where you can improve your fitness abilities, you can also improve your mental ability,” he says, matter-of-factly. “The defeats you have in life, they are just the past. The only things you can affect are the things that are happening at the moment and in the future. They are what I stay focused on.
“Sometimes it’s not about going out for training but forgetting about things and getting fresh in the mind, ‘just let it go’ and the flow you need to learn to do. Stop thinking and start doing. That is a thing [saying] that can really help you not overthink the things you cannot affect. We all as kids played football and enjoyed it. Sometimes it is important to do that as a professional player.”
For Southampton, it has been a season of two halves. In November they soared to the summit of the league for the first time in 32 years but have since dropped to 14th and on Monday were swept aside by struggling West Brom. All the while, they kept their foot flat to the pedal in the Cup, overcoming Arsenal, Wolves and Bournemouth en route to the semi-final which, as one of the government’s pilot events, will be played in front of 4,000 local residents, including key workers. “It’s nice that we are getting some fans back,” he says. “We are kind of going back to normal and let’s hope there will be some noise in the stadium and we will feel a little bit of adrenaline coming out [on to the pitch]. It’s the best feeling you can have to play football.”
Bednarek, who is closing on a century of appearances for Southampton, acknowledges a lack of consistency has blighted their progress – “We have an amazing game and then a bad game” – but they have excelled in this competition and continue to blossom under Ralph Hasenhüttl. They would love something tangible to show for their rip-roaring performances to this point. “You want to get some end product. The FA Cup is the kind of thing we want to achieve. This Cup is massive for everyone in the world.”
For Southampton, reaching a first FA Cup final since Gordon Strachan’s side lost 1-0 to Arsenal in 2003 is the focus, with the possibility over the horizon of following the 1976 vintage into the history books by claiming the Cup. “As the manager says, it’s the shortest way to winning a trophy and making history for our club,” says Bednarek. “That’s what we will try to do this Sunday – we will do everything to win it. The last time Southampton won it was a while ago; let’s try to win it and make new history for the club – be remembered as the guys who won the FA Cup.”