FA Cup final: Chelsea and Liverpool, exponents of the squad game, go head-to-head

THE TWO teams that line-up at Wembley for the 2022 FA Cup final may bear little resemblance to some of the selections that have got Chelsea and Liverpool to this stage. Between them, they have used 58 players on route to the final and names like Mo Salah, Kai Havertz and Sadio Mané have barely featured. One of the complaints about the Premier League’s big clubs is they rarely field full-strength sides in the FA Cup, and in doing so, they effectively cheapen the world’s oldest knockout competition.

But here’s a solution. Why not insist on FA Cup squads being named before the start of round three? From the team’s entry point, they will have to name their 11 from that list. This way, teams like Liverpool and Chelsea will only be able to use the players they have selected on the way to Wembley. There would be no scope to bring in the top names after the squad has worked its way through five rounds.

Going by the appearances made in the Cup, the two teams should look something like this:

Chelsea – Mendy, Rüdiger, Sarr, Christensen, Azpilicueta, Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek, Ziyech, Mount, Lukaku and Werner.
Liverpool – Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Konaté, Van Dijk, Tsmikas, Keita, Fabinho, Jones, Jota, Firmino and Minamino.

Of course, the final choices made by Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel will be very different and more in keeping with the two sides’ first eleven, but these players were among the most selected from the third round to the semi-finals.

Whoever makes the team, Chelsea versus Liverpool is a game that rarely disappoints, but both managers have very clear agendas. For Tuchel, it is his side’s last chance of a trophy in 2021-22 after some recent disappointments. The club is in a state of flux at the moment after the departure of Roman Abramovich and the pending takeover by an American consortium. It is the end of an era for Chelsea and Tuchel will want to impress his new paymasters.

1914 LFC – lost to Burnley 0-1
1915 CFC – lost to Sheffield United 0-3
1950 LFC – lost to Arsenal 0-2
1965LFC – beat Leeds 2-1 
1967 CFC – lost to Tottenham 1-2
1970CFC – beat Leeds 2-1 after 2-2 draw 
1971 LFC – lost to Arsenal 1-2
1974LFC – beat Newcastle United 3-0 
1977 LFC – lost to Manchester Utd 1-2
1986LFC – beat Everton 3-1 
1988 LFC – lost to Wimbledon 0-1
1989LFC – beat Everton 3-2 
1992LFC – beat Sunderland 2-0 
1994 CFC – lost to Manchester Utd 0-4
1996 LFC – lost to Manchester Utd 0-1
1997CFC – beat Middlesbrough 2-0 
2000CFC – beat Aston Villa 1-0 
2001LFC – beat Arsenal 2-1 
2002 CFC – lost to Arsenal 0-2
2006LFC – drew 3-3 with West Ham, won on pens 
2007CFC – beat Manchester Utd 1-0 
2009CFC – beat Everton 2-1 
2010CFC – beat Portsmouth 1-0 
2012CFC – beat Liverpool 2-1LFC – lost to Chelsea 1-2
2017 CFC – lost to Arsenal 1-2
2018CFC – beat Manchester Utd 1-0 
2020 CFC – lost to Arsenal 1-2
2021 CFC – lost to Leicester 0-1

It could have been so much better for the Blues in 2021-22. They started the campaign well enough and topped the table, but their season lost momentum as time passed. There’s no denying their statement signing, Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan, hasn’t worked out, not least because he has seemed quite misaligned to the Tuchel style. While the sale of the club signals the end of a glorious phase that began in 2003, there is the air of a team approaching transition, with a number of players likely to depart in the summer. Chelsea were last title contenders five years ago but they remain a compelling cup team – this will be their fourth FA Cup final in five years, but tellingly, they have won just one of the four (2018 against Manchester United in a quite dire 90 minutes).

Chelsea’s form has declined in recent weeks, although they looked more like their early season selves when they beat Leeds United 3-0 at Elland Road, their last game before the final. But in nine games, Chelsea have picked up 14 points and since the turn of the year, they have won eight of 16 Premier League games and lost four. In their first 20, they won 12 and lost twice.

Liverpool’s form since the start of 2022 has been irresistible and this is why they will be favourites to win the trophy. They have won 13 of their 16 Premier games and drawn three times. The narrative has been all about a mythical quadruple, but it is looking like they will miss out on the Premier to Manchester City. They have already won the EFL Cup, beating Chelsea in the final on penalties, and they face Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final in Paris. Their season may not end with four pieces of silver, but will still be memorable.

Chelsea RoundLiverpool 
Chesterfield Town  HW5-13Shrewsbury Town HW4-1
Plymouth Argyle  HW2-14Cardiff City HW3-1
Luton Town AW3-25Norwich City HW2-1
Middlesbrough AW2-06Nottingham Forest AW1-0
Crystal Palace NW2-0SFManchester City NW3-2

Liverpool have not won the FA Cup since 2006 when they overcame West Ham United on penalties. Over the past decade, they have suffered some surprise defeats, such as in 2013 when Oldham Athletic beat them, as well as assorted losses against Aston Villa, Wolves and West Bromwich Albion. Interestingly, in the club’s golden period that spanned the 1970s and 1980s, the FA Cup was never the piece prize most associated with Liverpool. They won it in 1974, Bill Shankly’s last major prize, and then didn’t lift the Cup again until 1986.

Under Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool have won the Premier League (2020), the Champions League (2019) and EFL Cup (2022). Winning the FA Cup will complete the domestic sweep for the popular German. Klopp has managed Liverpool 18 times against Chelsea in major games, winning six and losing four. Eight draws include the two Premier games this season.

Chelsea’s record against Liverpool in the FA Cup is good, seven wins in 11 meetings and has included some notable matches. In 1966, Tommy Docherty’s side won 2-1 at Anfield in the third round, the first match in Liverpool’s defence of the cup. And then there was a landmark tie in 1978 when Chelsea’s young team won 4-2 against the European champions, with Clive Walker running Liverpool’s defence ragged. Four years later, as a mid-table second division outfit, Chelsea repeated the trick by winning 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. More recently, Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-1 in the 2012 final, with Ramires and Didier Drogba scoring for the Blues and Andy Carroll netting for Kenny Dalglish’s men.

It would be nice to think the final will see two teams going hell for leather to win the FA Cup in this 150th anniversary year. The competition has come a long way since 1871-72, but equally, it is a considerable distance from its heyday. It deserves to regain some of its lustre.

The FA Cup’s decline is not the fault of the competition

EVERY year, the same question is asked: has the FA Cup lost its appeal? The pundit class continually tells us how amazing it still is, the Football Association mounts a campaign on an annual basis to big it up, but no matter how much we try to convince ourselves, we know it isn’t 1952 anymore. The nation does not come to a standstill on FA Cup final day and nobody is ever going to reintroduce community singing to the pre-match ceremony.

This week, Chelsea and Liverpool meet in the final, Chelsea’s fourth in five years, Liverpool’s first since 2012 when the Blues beat them 2-1. It will be the 11th final involving two so-called Premier big six clubs. The hallowed half dozen have won 25 of the last 29 cup finals, so don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter to the top clubs, if anything you wish it didn’t matter as much to give others a chance. And yet, those same clubs continually devalue the competition, fielding weakened teams as they rest their prized assets.

Part of the FA Cup’s endearing charm was that it was live on TV and probably the only game the entire population could watch as it was taking place. This alone gave it special status, but the other aspect was the sudden-death element of the game, something that bread and butter league games did not provide. In the 1960s, if a team lost a league fixture, it was not the end of the world, but elimination from the FA Cup was very upsetting and meant your team had to wait another year for a triumphant run to the twin towers. Today, every Premier League game is treated as though the outcome of the season depends upon it. This is partly attributable to the TV broadcasters, who talk-up every screened contest as being so very vital.

The FA Cup has slipped down the list of priorities, but that’s because of the financial rewards available from every league placing and the possibility of Champions League football. It does seem as the though the concept of “glory” comes in a very poor second to TV money, and yet the cup competitions are something to savour if you are a fan.

We cannot hope to recapture the social calendar aspect of Cup Final day, largely because TV football has become almost a 24 x 7 experience. Back in the 1950s and beyond, the FA Cup final was in the same category as the Derby, the Grand National, the Boat Race and Test matches. The Wembley final was a day-out for the proletariet, even though very few of them could get tickets for the match.

TV coverage started mid-morning in some cases and involved all sorts of activities, from gormless entertainment like “It’s a Knockout” to “Meet the Team”. Again, this kind of nonsense made the game even more attractive. The newspapers had eight-page FA Cup specials, the Daily Mirror was especially notable for its cartoons of the players. The media interviews were as banal as they are today, although a little more authentic as the world wasn’t sinking under a wave of cliché and jargon. There was a buzz on Cup Final day that really doesn’t exist today, and that’s because we live in an age where you can have anything you want at any time. The final’s scarcity value was what made it unique.

It was these side dishes that created the aura around the FA Cup. Yes, it was a great afternoon but society has changed so much that nobody wants one memorable occasion. Every football match is supposed to be like that today. If you eat Kobe steak every day, it is longer a treat, it becomes as commonplace as economy mince.

From the perspective of the people running football teams, winning a league is the real mark of performance because it is the week-in, week-out activity. There’s nothing football managers dislike more than uncertainty and cup competitions, traditionally, have been riddled with the prospect of surprise. A league will, in most cases, deliver the right result, but cup shocks can happen to anyone. This was always the mythical romance that surrounded the FA Cup, the highly motivated underdogs winning a final – teams like Wimbledon (1988), Southampton (1976), Sunderland (1973) and Wigan Athletic (2013).

The current leadin lights of the game are so much more powerful than the rest of English football they can afford to drop key players for the cup ties, and still win. They are so fine-tuned, so system-driven, that it is hard to imagine some of the surprises of the past ever happening again. Hence, the starry-eyed, hopeful side of the game is very hard to achieve. The last non-big six winner of the competition was Wigan Athletic, which could turn out to be the last major Wembley shock.

It’s not the fault of the FA Cup that it’s not as influential as it was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It can still excite people, but the most predictable thing about the competition has become the destination of the iconic trophy. In 29 years, Arsenal have won nine, Chelsea seven, Manchester United five and Liverpool and Manchester City two apiece. Only Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021) have broken the hold of the top clubs since the Premier League was created.

At the end of the day, the technicians of the Premier League surely resent the fact their data-fuelled plans could be upset by that most haunting of setbacks, “the error”. While over the course of a league programme, the best teams will certainly prevail, sheer doggedness, emotion and basic good fortune have conjured up memorable moments in the history of the FA Cup. Nobody will remember an all-conquering team like Manchester City beating a club with fewer resources 6-0 in the final, but they will talk for years about heroes of Wembley who have pulled off the unexpected. The FA Cup’s future does rely on surprises happening every now and then, but it is getting harder and harder to achieve “giant-killing”. If anything, this is why the Cup has mislaid its mass appeal. Knockout football should not merely be an extension of the Premier League schedule.