FA Cup final: Kostas stings the Blues

Ultimately, the media got its wish and the narrative was fed just a little more. The double/treble/quadruple (delete as appropriate) is still on, the brilliant white teeth of Jürgen Klopp continue to gleam and the badge keeps getting punched by the tall German.

There was something inevitable about the outcome. Liverpool ooze confidence, have a system built over more than six years, Chelsea’s squad is a bolt-on project, the result of several managers’ influence and a less thoughtful approach in the market. It may rile Chelsea and their fans that they have been down-graded in the trophy-winning stakes – their Champions League success may turn out to have been the last throes of the dice – but the fact is, Liverpool’s self-belief at Wembley seemed a marked contrast to the slightly tetchy, end of the road show of Chelsea.

The tale of two players sums it up. For Chelsea, the performance of Romelu Lukaku, their lethargic £ 97.5 million investment looked like money poorly spent, while the mid-season acquisition of Luis Duiz by Liverpool (a snip at £ 45 million), appears to be one of the season’s bargain buys. In some ways, these two transfers underline the difference between the two clubs, one buying at will, the other purchasing astutely with the system in mind.

Lukaku, like Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, looks poised to become another disappointing big money striker. He looked lethargic, out of touch and slightly clumsy. Christian Pulisic, a more nimble and methodical front-runner, might have won the FA Cup for Chelsea with a shade more accuracy, but the Blues were never supposed to rely on the young American. Lukaku was meant to be the talisman, but he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Thomas Tuchel seems to know it and the new Chelsea regime will undoubtedly change the way the club plays the role of “kid in a sweet shop”. If anyone needed a reminder of how careless Chelsea have been, there was Mo Salah, conversing with Chelsea’s Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, wondering what might have been had he been given the right chance at Stamford Bridge.

Yet the game could have gone either way, it was remarkably even across the 120 minutes. Liverpool started with menace and Chelsea were fortunate to hang on to parity beyond the first 25 minutes. The pundits and commentators were convinced the day was all about Liverpool’s pursuit of glory rather than Chelsea’s bid to end the campaign with something tangible – “It’s only a matter of time,” claimed one mic man. Salah limped off after just 33 minutes, causing anxiety on the Liverpool bench, but his FA Cup in 2021-22 comprised 123 minutes, Klopp had used him sparingly.

Then Chelsea found their game plan and by the start of the second half, Marco Alonso  – arguably Chelsea’s best player on the day – had struck the woodwork. As the game looked destined for extra time, Tuchel removed Lukaku from the action – Chelsea fans must wonder if they will see him next season in the club’s colours. The half hour that followed was something of a phoney war as both teams tired and penalties loomed, never a satisfactory way to win a cup. But of course, the broadcasters loved it.

The model that served Chelsea well in the early years of Abramovich may have become passé

This week’s hero emerged as Kostas Tsimikas, the 21 year-old Greek defender signed from Olympiacos in 2020. Perhaps there was some justice as Tsimikas had played in most of Liverpool’s FA Cup games right up until the semi-final when the first choice guys took over. Somehow, those watching this vaguely compelling contest knew Liverpool’s “mentality monsters” would prevail. They simply seem in better shape than Chelsea, who really don’t know what to expect in the coming weeks.

If the final, indeed the season, represents the zenith of Liverpool under Klopp remains to be seen, but for Chelsea, they missed out on the chance to end the Abramovich age with a trophy. The resurrection of Liverpool also highlights how football has, and continues to evolve. Chelsea’s triumphs under Abramovich were often the result of bulk buying, impulse acquisition of the next big thing and continual turnover of managers. Although it was short-termism at its most conspicuous, and demonstrated a zero tolerance of failure, it also had a life span. Naturally, Chelsea fans lapped it up as their club was turned into winners after decades of under-achievement.

Somebody, somewhere, identified there was a slightly different way. It would be wrong to consider that both Chelsea and Liverpool are not beneficiaries of elitism, but whereas the London club has continued to hire and fire, Liverpool have allowed Klopp to build something that not only brings success, but also helps the club to operate smartly. Manchester City are almost a combination of Chelsea and Liverpool as they have almost limitless funds to play with, but they clearly use their money well. It is not only the age of Abramovich that has ended at Chelsea, it may be that the model that served them well for a decade or more has become passé. Since Klopp was hired by Liverpool and Pep Guardiola took over at City and, Chelsea have won four trophies to City’s eight and Liverpool’s four. The strategy is not as successful as it once was.

Chelsea’s challenge now is to remain relevant in a new business paradigm. Liverpool and City are on a roll at the moment and the gap between them and Chelsea (it is hard to agree with those that believe the Blues are streets ahead of fourth and beyond) is substantial. But they did run Liverpool very close at Wembley, not once but twice in 2021-22. Klopp’s ebullient team have not “beaten” Chelsea this season, although the records will show they won two trophies at their expense.

Look at the fundamentals and the two clubs have little between them, although it is very obvious Chelsea had to thank their owner for his generosity. They both made well over £ 400 million in revenues in 2020-21, there is just £ 18 million difference in their wage bills and over the past five years, Chelsea’s net transfer deficit is £ 43 million more than Liverpool’s net outlay. Both have very good squads and they have top-of-the-range coaches. These are facts that will puzzle Chelsea’s new owners, but the answer may simply be continuity, patience and planning.  And a bit of luck at penalty shoot-outs, perhaps?

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 Chelsea collapse, a Real lesson

KARIM BENZEMA was supposed to be finished a couple of years ago, yet since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, the Frenchman has come out of the shadows and shown that he remains a superb striker. Chelsea discovered that the 34 year-old still has tricks up his sleeve, twisting like a 24 year-old to head not one but two peculiarly brilliant goals. And if that wasn’t enough, he took advantage of some dire defending by the home side to score his second consecutive UEFA Champions League hat-trick.

But what of Chelsea, the almost certainly deposed European champions and orphaned by sanctions on their owner, Roman Abramovich, where do they go now? Unless a miracle takes place, they may have to hang on to third place in the Premier League. And then there’s the FA Cup semi-final with Thomas Tuchel’s side up against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Chelsea’s season could fall apart by April 17 if they are not careful.

Suddenly, their defence looks very suspect, perhaps because Thiago Silva is 37 after all, or because Andreas Christensen has one eye on a move to Spain, but conceding seven goals in two home games is almost unheard of at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea do have something in their DNA that triggers unexpected capitulation, such as the 5-2 defeat against hapless West Bromwich Albion in 2020-21. It was actually Rüdiger and Mendy that allowed Benzema in for the decisive third goal, but what was happening when his headers sailed into the net? 

Fatigue may be playing a part. Chelsea haven’t been the same since their autumn effervescence and a mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi for the worthless FIFA Club World Cup may not have been best practice, but they are also not getting the best out of their expensively assembled squad.

Romelu Lukaku is the new Fernando Torres in so far that expectations exceed the reality of the player. Lukaku may not suit the Chelsea style or the players he has around him – certainly he doesn’t seem mobile enough – but surely this was known to the club before they signed him? For the past two years, Chelsea have been looking for a striker to finish all the good work and dominant possession they enjoy, but Timo Werner hasn’t entirely worked out and Lukaku seems an uncomfortable fit. That’s well over £ 120 million spent on misfit forwards. Admittedly, injuries have got in the way but Lukaku doesn’t look happy and contented.

Fortunately, they have a deep squad and a plethora of midfielders who can score goals, hence they have already netted as many as they did in the Premier in 2020-21 (58). They’ve conceded only 23 goals. However, Chelsea’s goalscoring rate has been in decline for the past few years: in 2017, their last title win, they scored 85, but a year later, they dropped by 23 goals to 62. Last season’s 58 was the lowest of the Abramovich era.

Lukaku’s staccato campaign compares woefully with the post-Ronaldo career of Benzema. He’s scored 124 goals in 183 games for Real Madrid since CR7 moved off to Turin and then back to Manchester. There’s even talk of him winning the Balon d’Or. 

But he’s not the only veteran enjoying an Indian Summer at Real: Luka Modric should be on the punditry bandwagon by now (he’s actually older than Wayne Rooney), but he’s still controlling the midfield. At some stage, Real are going to have to rebuild and replace their old-timers, but they could get one last Champions League victory out of them.

Bizarrely, nobody has really forecast a Real victory in Paris, they were meant to be past it, no longer a contender against the might of the Premier League. They may be 12 points clear in La Liga, but they recently lost 4-0 at home to a transitioning Barcelona. But the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to Benzema, hinted there might be one last hurrah from their old boys. And quite typically, Real is one of the few clubs where a successful season can end with the manager getting his marching orders. Carlo Ancelotti’s future is far from certain, but you’d never guess it from his demeanor.

Thomas Tuchel, too, may find a little pressure if the season fizzles out of control, although the zero tolerance approach to trophyless seasons may have ended with the departure of Abramovich’s regime. Tuchel has admitted that on the face of it, the tie with Real Madrid is all but over, an honest assessment of the situation if ever there was one.

Nobody knows how strong Chelsea’s spending power will be when they are taken over. One thing is sure, mass-spending to bolster the squad on an annual basis will be no more. If the new ownership is American, the strategy will be far different from Abramovich’s extreme generosity, the investors will surely expect a return. It is unlikely Chelsea will be as competitive in the transfer market, although they will still be among the leading clubs. They will probably fall further behind Manchester City and possibly Liverpool. Already it is hard to see where the next Premier League title is coming from, Chelsea’s near-term ambition may be to stay in the top three or four.

It may be too early to tell for sure, but Chelsea’s defeat at the hands of Real Madrid may be a signpost that the current glorious era is coming to an end. Their last title was in 2017, so if they win in 2023, it will be a six-year stretch, the longest since they won their first Premier League in 2005. They over-performed in 2020-21 in securing the Champions League, even the most myopic fan would admit they were surprise winners. They had a reasonable run to the last eight this time, but the way they were swept aside by Real Madrid put them firmly in their place. 

And that place will still be among Europe’s elite, so this was not a doomsday defeat and the change of ownership does not warrant apocalyptic skies over London SW6. When Chelsea started sweeping-up in the early years of Abramovich’s reign, the snipe from opposing fans was they would slump dramatically should the mysterious Russian walk away. That was never going to be the case, because the club is now a prime asset in today’s football market. Similarly, there will be other glorious eras at Chelsea, even if they are not as prolonged.