Leicester City win the facemask final

PEOPLE just cannot get their head around the fact that Leicester City are not a little club, that their elevation to the fringe of the “big six” was not through sheer toil and acumen but because they have sound financial backing and a regime that has successfully reached out to the local community and won many friends in the Midlands. They are owned by billionaires, like Chelsea, like Manchester City, like Arsenal, like Manchester United and Liverpool. 

Leicester’s deserved success in winning their first FA Cup was treated with euphoria by the media, by Mr Gary Lineker, by those that despise the European Super League concept and those that especially dislike Chelsea. Leicester may be owned by billionaires, but they are, in the public eyes, the “right” billionaires rather than a publicity-shy Russian who used to have Vlad Putin in his address book. 

Roman Abramovich started the circus in 2003 and Leicester were one of the clubs that jumped aboard and found their own monied benefactor. In the league table of wealthy owners, the Leicester backers are relatively modest, but the King Power influence has allowed Leicester to climb above the rest of the pack. 

They became the 44th winner of the FA Cup, the first since 2013 when Wigan beat Manchester City and only the 13th new winner since World War Two. Chelsea are no strangers to winning the competition in the Abramovich era, but they had to wait until 1970 for their first FA Cup triumph. The FA Cup’s rich history, along with 31 of the 44 winners, was moulded long before Leicester’s first final in 1949 and Chelsea’s 1970 win.

The fascination of the underdog has long been part of FA Cup folklore, and to many, Leicester were cast in that role before kick-off, however inappropriate that tag may have been. The Premier League title win of 2016 will always be one of football’s most unlikely tales, but the FA Cup win, a glorious moment to be enjoyed, was not a seismic shock – Brendan Rodgers’ team are third in the league table, after all. Leicester have been one of the teams of 2020-21 and they had already beaten Chelsea earlier in the season.

You could argue that the classic defeated fans’ explanation, “they wanted it more than us”, may well have applied to Chelsea’s failure to take full control of the game. For all their expenditure, Chelsea fielded a £ 70 million goalkeeper lacking confidence,  an expensive striker who has a sizeable jury still in discussion about his worth and midfielders who lacked punch and precision. Chelsea had 64% of the ball, but failed to exploit it. There was no Ben Chilwell, Kai Havertz or Christian Pulisic in the starting line-up – Thomas Tuchel may have a few regrets.

By contrast, it was difficult not to be impressed by Leicester’s commitment and the performances of Kasper Schmeichel (the man of the match), Wesley Fofana, Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans. And what a winning goal! Tielemans netted with a spectacular right-foot drive from 25 yards midway through the second half. It was a strike that earned its place in the great Cup Final goals of all time.

Schmeichel pulled off a spectacular save from Mason Mount, but the real drama came in the final seconds when Chilwell – heartily jeered every time he touched the ball by his former fans – thought he had helped Chelsea equalise when his effort went into the net via Wes Morgan. Chilwell, was, according to VAR, offside.

The script had been written in advance, it was time for a little romance, especially in this era of bitter division within the game. Victory for Leicester was a win for those that would have been marginalised by the European Super League concept. Although Chelsea were the first to withdraw, they will always be quilty by association. Leicester, incidentally, would probably have been the biggest club in the Premier League if the project had gone ahead.

On this day at Wembley, with the vaguely peculiar sight of 22,000 people in a stadium, Leicester were certainly winners of the FA Cup final that will surely forever be known as “the facemask final”.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: ALAMY

FA Cup Final: The football match that used to stop the nation

IN DAYS of old, newspapers all over Britain would be preparing their FA Cup specials about this time of year, some getting their caricatures ready for their four-page supplements, others persuading players to pose on the Wembley turf with the odd prop. The cup final was a national event, one that stopped the traffic, commanded intense media attention and sparked interest from people normally disinterested in the great game. The FA Cup was almost part of the social calendar.

IN DAYS of old, newspapers all over Britain would be preparing their FA Cup specials about this time, some getting their characatures ready for their 4-page supplement, others persuading players to pose on the Wembley turf with the odd prop. The cup final was a national event, one that stopped the traffic, commanded many column inches and sparked interest from people not normally remotely interested in the great game. 

It has all changed, not because the FA Cup isn’t worth winning, but because we are bombarded with “special days”, from transfer deadlines to club rebrands, the currency of the word “special” has been devalued. Everyone is “wonderful” or “lovely” and Wembley appearances are not that golden ticket, they have become as commonplace as Monday night leftovers.

For Chelsea, it’s their 28th appearance at the “new” Wembley and 16th in FA Cup matches. They’ve won 14 of their 27 visits up until now and lost nine (not including penalty shoot-outs). Chelsea played at the old Wembley no more than a dozen times. 

Leicester will be playing in their fifth FA Cup final and they are still waiting for their first victory. Their last appearance was in 1969 when they were beaten by Manchester City. That was their third FA Cup final of the 1960s, having lost to Tottenham and Manchester United in 1961 and 1963 respectively. 

Form guide

There’s no doubt that Chelsea and Leicester have been two of the teams of the season in 2020-21, with Leicester losing a little momentum in the closing weeks and Chelsea resurgent under Thomas Tuchel. 

Leicester gave an indication of their intentions early on when they beat Manchester City 5-2 at the Etihad, while Chelsea started well, lost their way, sacked their manager and found their mojo again. Leicester have excited at times and demonstrated they are no longer so reliant on veteran Jamie Vardy.

Chelsea’s path to Wembley has included ties with two Premier League clubs (Sheffield United and Manchester City), two with Championship sides (Luton and Barnsley) and a third round clash with League Two Morecambe. They’ve conceded just one goal and scored 11. Tammy Abrahams, who now appears to be out of favour under Tuchel, has netted four goals, including a hat-trick in the 3-1 win against Luton Town. 

Leicester, meanwhile, have clashed with three Premier sides (Brighton, Manchester United and Southampton). Vardy, who has scored 15 goals this season, has yet to score in the FA Cup, but the player seen as his heir apparent, 24 year-old Kelechi Iheanacho, has scored four.

Leicester’s home form has been suspect, but since reaching the final, they have won three of their five league games. They face Chelsea again just a few days after the Wembley clash.

Chelsea, meanwhile, slipped up against Arsenal at home just before the final, allowing the Gunners to complete the “double” over them for the first time since 2003-04. But their win at Manchester City, clinched in added time, highlighted the progress made under Tuchel. Chelsea have also reached the UEFA Champions League where they will face Pep Guardiola’s side in Porto.

Big six 

Every season, the FA Cup comes under scrutiny: is the competition declining?, do the big clubs care?, do managers prioritise it?, do we need it?. The fact is, the FA Cup has been won by clubs from the so-called “big six” 12 times in the 14 finals that have been held at the new Wembley. Portsmouth in 2008 and Wigan in 2013 are the exceptions. Since 1971, when Arsenal won the double, the big six have won 38 of 50 finals and been runners-up on 23 occasions. That’s 61% of all finalists.

Leicester, of course, have challenged the big six this season and are now on the fringe of becoming a fully-fledged member of the elite. Their away form is good and against the six they have won at Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United. Chelsea’s results against the top clubs have not been impressive. They failed to win any of their games at home, but won at Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham.

Players

Chelsea’s Wembley squad, needless to say, has cost far more than Leicester City’s group of players. They have a very strong squad, which according to Transfermarkt, has a market value of £ 700 million-plus. Leicester’s squad has a value of around £ 430 million. The Chelsea line-up for the final will probably have cost the club more than £ 400 million compared to the £ 250 million Leicester paid for their team. 

Chelsea had a spending spree last summer, signing Ziyech, Havertz, Chilwell and Werner, all talented young players. The huge outlay, around £ 200 million, has yet to reap rewards, with some of the new men not hitting their best form on a consistent basis, but there have been flashes of brilliance that, if properly harnessed, could make Chelsea into title contenders once more. 

Leicester bolstered their defence in the close season, signing Wesley Fofana from Saint-Étienne for £ 30 million and Atalanta’s Timothy Castagne for £ 21 million. Iheanacho, who arrived from Manchester City in 2017 for £ 25 million, has been one of the stars of the season and is now valued at more than £ 40 million.

Viva la difference!

While Leicester City have certainly moved up the rankings in terms of their financial status, they are still way behind the likes of Chelsea. Leicester’s revenues for 2019-20, for example, totalled £ 150 million versus the £ 412 million generated by Chelsea. Leicester’s wage bill was £ 157 million, which amounted to 105% of income, a reflection of the pandemic’s impact on football finance. Covid-19 also contributed to Leicester’s loss of £ 60 million, but Chelsea managed to make a £ 39 million profit for the season.

Chelsea’s wage bill was £ 287 million. Their commercial clout is far in excess of Leicester’s capability at present. Chelsea’s commercial income stream totalled £ 175 million, while Leicester’s was £ 29 million. Chelsea’s matchday revenues were four times the Foxes’ total. 

Experience or enthusiasm?

Chelsea have become one of the FA Cup’s most prolific clubs over the past 15 years. This will be their 15th FA Cup final and the eighth of the Roman Abramovich era. That said, very few of their current team have won the competition: for Mendy, Pulisic, Jorginho, Christensen and the new signings, lifting the FA Cup will be a career first. Olivier Giroud, by contrast, has four FA Cup winners’ medals, won with Arsenal and Chelsea.

Leicester City will be eager to win their first FA Cup, which after an impressive season would confirm their status as an upper-echelon club. For players like Jamie Vardy, Jony Evans, Kapser Schmeichel and Marc Albrighton, who are all in their 30s, it could be their last chance of winning the competition – you never know when the chance will come again. 

This is what will make this final interesting – will it be the moment to remember for the current batch of Chelsea signings, who might have the Champions League on their mind, or will it be the dynamism of Vardy and his younger colleagues who will capture the day? Nobody should underestimate Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City team, they are no longer also-rans, but equally, Tuchel the technician deserves respect for the way he has changed Chelsea this season. These are clubs that are both in the top four of the Premier League, Wembley and the FA couldn’t really ask for more.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Jon Candy, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0