Wembley choked with the red smoke of the winning team and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dream of a quadruple of trophies still just about alive – although the 120 minutes and 14 penalties they took to win this FA Cup final took its toll.
For most clubs this would be the high point of the year but at Liverpool it is always a maximum of three days to the next major game. In the moment of victory Klopp said it had rarely felt sweeter, the Anfield end of Wembley in full voice and so many smoke bombs that the stadium have appointed a man solely to deal with their removal. The first FA Cup for Liverpool since 2006, and their second trophy of what has been a remarkable season.
They had the best of the game itself until both sides ran exhausted into extra-time, and then the penalties that would deliver the drama of triumph and despair. It eventually finished at around 7.30pm when the substitute Kostas Tsimikas completed the job for Liverpool in the shootout at the second time of asking. A few minutes earlier, Sadio Mane’s penalty to win the final with the last of the ten in the original shootout, was stopped brilliantly by Edouard Mendy and on it plunged into sudden death.
Come Tuesday it will be back to the job of pursuing Manchester City in the Premier League, although Klopp conceded that targets may have to be reassessed. Both Mohamed Salah and then Virgil Van Dijk, the two big men in a very big team, had to be withdrawn with injury. Fabinho was already missing after injury at Villa Park. City face West Ham on Sunday where a City win puts the league title very far from Liverpool’s reach – a six-point City lead and a goal difference advantage of at least eight with two to play for Klopp’s team.
The question facing Klopp is whether, in that case, he then abandons the hunt for the league and focuses on the Champions League final in Paris two weeks from now. The FA Cup and the League Cup are, after all, already banked. Klopp said that Salah’s substitution was a precaution and that both Salah and Van Dijk were confident that their injuries were not serious. Nevertheless, he would know more when the squad were back in for training on Sunday.
For Chelsea, this was a final they almost rescued. There were points during the game, and then when Mendy saved from Mane in the shootout, when it seemed that they had stayed in it long enough to win. They had been dominated in the first half and then there was an improvement after the break. In the penalties, captain Cesar Azpilicueta, a substitute on the day, missed the second. There was one more failed penalty to come – the 13th in the shootout from Mason Mount stopped by a great save from Alisson. The Englishman has now played six Wembley finals in his short career and is yet to leave with the trophy after any of them.
It was in defence that Chelsea could say they dominated the balls played high into the area, as Tottenham Hotspur had done so in their draw at Anfield seven days earlier. For Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger it was one last big act of defiance before their partnership passes into history with the German’s departure this summer. All the more impressive for Thiago that he played through an injury problem picked up in the early stages.
The same might be said for Reece James, outstanding in the right wing-back position and who struck a fine penalty in the shoot-out. Less so, Romelu Lukaku whom this game passed by – even in the periods during the early stages of the second half when Chelsea did create chances. He came off before extra-time, replaced by Hakim Ziyech and there were few options for Tuchel. Kai Havertz was not fit enough to be named in the matchday squad. Timo Werner felt discomfort in the warm-up and, Tuchel said, informed his manager he could not play.
Tuchel had left N’Golo Kante on the bench, with the Frenchman, who came on in the second half, having participated in just one training session “at 50 per cent”. Tuchel would later replace Mateo Kovacic whom the German said had an ankle so swollen, “I don’t know how it was possible to get his foot into a shoe”. It was certainly telling in the performance of the midfielder who was largely dictated to by Thiago Alcantara.
Tuchel showed much good grace in defeat having reached two FA Cup finals now and lost them both as well as that League Cup final in January that went the same way. Yet there are signs that the stress of the end of the Roman Abramovich regime is showing now, the Chelsea manager talking about the backdrop to this game of “the sanctions and the players who are leaving”.
The loss of Salah came half an hour in, the striker looking resigned to the reality that no treatment was going to solve whatever was wrong with his right thigh. The best chance in that early period had largely come from Luis Diaz, the game’s best player, and close behind him Thiago Alcantara. The midfielder pivoted and feinted and was so intent on the forward pass that one feels you could drop him in the ocean and he would still come up facing goal.
With Trevoh Chalobah the right-sided centre-half and James otherwise occupied as the wing-back, there was space for Diaz. He went closest on eight minutes, when Mendy got enough on a shot to stop it crossing the line. It was tough for Chelsea and there seemed no way to stop the probing quick passes from Liverpool’s midfield. Chelsea’s chances were on counter-attacks and they had more of them after the break. Before then Alonso hit Alisson’s bar with a free-kick.
Van Dijk went off before extra-time had begun but Chelsea did not have the firepower to make a difference. As the game headed towards penalties, Tuchel resisted the temptation to reprise his League Cup plan in February with the introduction of Kepa Arrizabalaga. He did bring on Ross Barkley the penalties in mind, although it meant that Ruben Loftus-Cheek, himself a substitute brought on for extra-time, had to make way. “Ruben has not a great [penalty] history statistically,” Tuchel said. Barkley scored from the spot but it was Liverpool who kept their nerve.