Liverpool edged past Chelsea on penalty kicks in a match that will surely come to be known as The Kostas Tsimikas Final…
1. The FA Cup, we are frequently reminded, doesn’t matter any more, and the surest sign of the actual decline of the competition might well be that those who do still enjoy it have do so against a background of white noise from those who consider this particular competition to be somehow below them. You even got a sense of this from the pre-match coverage of this year’s final. On the BBC, there seemed to be a barrage of reminders from the past about how much it used to matter, of how much of an occasion it used to be, and with precious little being said about this year’s finalists themselves.
Perhaps this is an inevitable reaction to the media saturation of the game in general. We no longer need pen pictures of all the players and lengthy conversations about how these teams set up tactically. We already know. The pre-match television coverage was diverting, certainly for those amongst us who were teenagers during the mid-to-late 1980s, which was arguably the last time that the FA Cup final was consistently great, but it could have done with being held together under one umbrella. Considerably less time seemed to be given to today’s sense of occasion, even though the competition was being shown simultaneously by both the BBC and ITV for the first time since 1988. (The thought of switching over to ITV did not occur to me; some things never change.)
2. But it did matter to both of these teams. The players are all professional athletes. Competition matters to them in a way that they perhaps can’t even control. They are bred as both players and competitors, and from an increasingly younger and young age, winning is everything. When you’re in a cup final, it matters. Furthermore, winning the FA Cup would be part of a bigger narrative for either team. This has been a rotten 2022 for Chelsea so far, with the Roma Abramovich era and coming to an abrupt end a couple of months ago, followed by the effects of sanctions. Even now, the full picture on what will replace him is still not quite clear.
Todd Boehly has been confirmed as the new owner of the club, so winning the FA Cup can mark a line in the sand for the club; the end of the Abramovich era and the beginning of the Boehley era, whatever that turns out to be. For Liverpool, the Premier League title is just starting to slide from view. Manchester City have the points advantage and now the goal difference advantage with just a couple of games to play. But a cup treble of the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup and the Champions League is still realistic, and winning this match was a nice little curtain-raiser for the main event to come against Real Madrid.
3. The problem with being in the position in which the FA Cup finds itself is that is now perpetually having to justify its existence. This match is unlikely to be remembered as a ‘classic’, but it was – at least until extra-time, at which point the exertions of the last nine months finally seemed to catch up with quite a few of the players – an interesting game with plenty of chances, played between two teams who played like it mattered to them.
4. There was time beforehand for some pre-match booing, both for the national anthem and the traditional pre-Cup Final hymn Abide With Me. With all this pre-match derision, a 4.45pm kick-off, and Chelsea wearing all yellow because reasons – one suggestion had been good luck while another had been solidarity with Ukraine, but Thomas Tuchel was keeping schtum before the match – it didn’t feel very much like anybody wanted a ‘traditional’ occasion at all.
5. For the first 15 minutes came the press. Liverpool started with the brisk authority of a team that just wanted this over and done with, and they had the Chelsea defence straining throughout the opening stages, with Mendy saving from Luis Diaz with his legs before the ball was scrambled clear, after having been put through by a pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold that frankly shouldn’t have been shown before the watershed. Diaz and Sadio Mane were a constant roving threat, Mane coming deep and then popping up again thirty yards from goal, Diaz tormenting on the left-hand side of the attack.
6. But after holding firm for fifteen minutes, Chelsea started to attack a little and created a couple of chances of their own, including one of the clearest of the half. Reece James’ pass found Mason Mount on the right, and Mount’s low cross in found Christian Pulisic unmarked and 12 yards out, but Pulisic wrapped his foot around the ball a little too much and it rolled a couple of inches of Alisson’s right-hand post. Liverpool’s defence do occasionally have their moments of weakness. What makes them so formidable play against is actually getting the ball from them in order to check for those weaknesses in the first place.
7. Thomas Tuchel decided to go with Romelu Lukaku, but by half-time the coach might have been forgiven wondering why he bothered. A couple of moments seemed to encapsulate this. In the first, eight minutes from half-time, Lukaku found himself just inside the Liverpool penalty area, surrounded on two sides by defenders, but with reinforcements starting to arrive. He didn’t hold the ball up and release it to support; instead, he played a half-hearted looking ball halfway across the penalty area, to no-one in particular.
The second came in first half stoppage-time, when Jorginho threaded the ball of the eye of a needle on the left-hand channel for Lukaku to run on to, only for him to balloon his shot high and wide of the goal. At practically the end of a full season with Chelsea, it remains as difficult as ever to see the what the benefits of selecting him exactly are. He’d looked okay in scoring both goals in their previous match, the 2-2 home draw against Wolves, but Liverpool’s defenders seemed to spend practically no time worrying about Lukaku during the first half.
8. This has been a difficult season for Mo Salah. Egypt were knocked out of the World Cup in the qualifiers and then beaten by Senegalin the final of the African Cup of Nations, while at home he still hasn’t agreed contract terms to a point where there are a few who are starting to wonder whether his time at Anfield might actually be coming to an end. All this while a second Premier League title seems to be slipping from his grasp. And now this. Salah didn’t go down under any particular challenge and left the pitch to be replaced by Diogo Jota.
The Champions League final is in exactly two weeks’ time, and it is worth remembering the sight of Salah leaving the pitch in tears with less than half an hour played of the 2018 Champions League final. A couple of minutes earlier there had been another lengthy stoppage after Alisson required attention to his leg after saving from Marcos Alonso. These are headaches that Jurgen Klopp could well do without, with such an important couple of weeks coming up. They may or may not be signs of fatigue.
9. With the first half having ended goalless, Chelsea came out for the second looking very much like they didn’t want this state of affairs. Within three minutes of the restart, Chelsea had two chances. Alonso pulled the ball narrowly wide, Pulisic forced a superb save from Alisson, with Lukaku this time linking up intelligently to create the space and time for him, and then Alonso hitting the crossbar directly from a free-kick on the right.
For the first five minutes of the half Liverpool looked as though they didn’t quite what had hit them before things calmed back down again and they could reassert themselves. Diaz shot narrowly wide with Edouard Mendy either completely unable to get anywhere near the ball or unnervingly confident that it would go wide.
10. With the passing of the hour played came, following the 120 minutes of the Carabao Cup final, the passing of the third goalless hour between these two teams at Wembley this season, and it wasn’t so much that the previous 180 minutes had been bad, more that they had been, to coin a cliche, ‘for the purists amongst us’.
Midway through the half, Pulisic shot a couple of feet wide of the left-hand post after being fed from the left by Mount, again. The twentieth attempt at goal by the two teams followed a few minutes later, but as fatigue finally seemed to get on top of the players a little, the pace began to slow. With 17 minutes to go Liverpool introduced James Milner, whose previous FA Cup final appearances had come nine and eleven years ago, respectively. Within two minutes he’d nipped at Reece James’ legs enough for his opponent to require attention from the physio.
11. It took 77 minutes for the first card of the game to come, but when it did come things might have been worse for its recipient. James seemed to put the base of his foot into Thiago, and while the yellow card was probably just about the right decision, it certainly looked more like a red card than no card at all. As the match entered its closing ten minutes, it didn’t feel very much as though either wanted to take a huge risk to snatch the match by potentially leaving their defence exposed.
For all that, with eight minutes to play Diaz did beat Mendy to his near post from an angle and hit the outside of the post, and within a minute Milner crossed from the right and Andy Robertson shinned the ball against the post from four yards out. Lukaku, apparently now the perpetual square peg being smacked into a round hole and then getting monstered for not fitting, was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes to play. It increasingly feels as though everybody will be happier if he moves on to pastures new.
12. Luis Diaz was outstanding for ninety minutes, probably the best player on the pitch during that time. But there was one thing missing from his game; a goal. As the clock ticked over into stoppage-time he bent a curling shot just round Mendy’s left-hand post, but it had been a frustrating game for the Liverpool forward, whose performance had been pretty much flawless otherwise, and he seemed a little reluctant to leave the pitch when he was withdrawn in favour of Roberto Firmino, early in extra-time.
Having pressed so hard for the first 25 minutes of the second half, Chelsea found themselves increasingly pegged back in their own half and by the end of the ninety minutes they were hanging on a little. The full-time whistle brought an extra thirty minutes that just about nobody on the pitch likely wanted.
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) May 14, 2022
13. Within the space of two minutes during the first period of extra-time, we saw both what Chelsea have been missing at times this season and what they will definitely be missing next time around. N’Golo Kante, such a critical cog in the machine that became the champions of Europe and then the world in the first place yet such a brittle, increasingly injury-prone presence, was introduced as a substitute, tearing back to nick the ball away and to safety when Liverpool tried to attack on the right wing.
Barely a couple of minutes later, the Madrid-bound Antonio Rudiger had to press down a little heavier on the accelerator to take the ball from Mane, tidily collecting the ball and pushing it into midfield again. Rudiger’s departure is going to cause Tuchel a huge headache at the end of this season, and replacing him will surely be both extremely difficult and quite likely extremely expensive. But these two chances were fleeting breaks for Liverpool. Chelsea dominated the first period of extra-time, although they were limited to half-chances only.
14. The half-time whistle brought interesting Chelsea changes; Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesar Azpilicueta for Trevoh Chalobah and Pulisic, with Azpilicueta taking the captain’s armband and Loftus-Cheek going to something approaching a centre-forward position. But the second period of extra-time turned out to be a sluggish affair, the players looking increasingly punch drunk and leggy. Substitutions continued to flow, but the pace of the game itself slowed to a crawl of ‘centre holds it’, and the most significant moment came with a just over a minute to play, when Loftus-Cheek, who’d only been on the pitch for 14 minutes and who didn’t appear to be injured, was replaced by Ross Barkley, who was treated to the sort of reception you’d expect a former Evertonian to get from 40,000 highly-animated Liverpool supporters. So, after 210 minutes – that’s three and a half hours – of cup final action between these two teams without one, there would at least finally be some goal action. TO PENALTIES!
15. This shootout’s drama came from three missed kicks. Azpilicueta hit the outside of the post with the score at 1-1, and it took until the final kick for Mendy to save from his international team-mate Mane to force sudden death. With the scores tied at 5-5, Alisson saved from Mount. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; Kostas Tsimikas has made 31 appearances for Liverpool in the two years since he signed from Olympiacos without having scored a goal, and he still hasn’t in a statistical sense. But he did step up to take the 14th kick of this shootout and, with admirable sangfroid, sent Mendy the wrong way to win the Cup for Liverpool.
16. Chelsea set a new record with this defeat, becoming the first club to lose three FA Cup finals in a row. They scored one in those three games, where Manchester City scored six in the last final before their run started. But at the same time it’s still plenty visible how they got to the heights that they’ve reached under Tuchel. Twice this season they’ve taken Liverpool to a penalty shootout in a cup final. This time around, they had the chances to win the game. Considering everything that has been going on at the club this year, that is quite an achievement. There is work to do. There may be more credible threats to their Champions League place next season, and with (at least) Rudiger and Andreas Christensen leaving and Lukaku evidently not working out, changes will be necessary. But the building blocks remain in place.
The odds remain stacked against Liverpool completing the quadruple. They’ve won the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, but they are dependent on Manchester City losing at least one of their last two matches of the season to have any chance whatsoever of winning the Premier League, and writing off Real Madrid before the Champions League final ignores, well, what Real have done in every round of the knockout stage of this year’s competition. But that’s the bar. These are precisely the reasons why it’s unprecedented. It’s punishing, and Liverpool still have the most difficult bits to come. But it’s still possible, and that’s what really matters, for now. They’re a very special team and you wouldn’t bet against them taking a treble, even if the league is probably just beyond their grasp.