Thomas Tuchel dropped to his knees pounding his fists repeatedly against the Wembley turf as he thought that Chelsea’s moment of redemption had arrived amid the turmoil of this chaotic season.
The Chelsea manager was bracing for the worst when Sadio Mane stepped forward to take the penalty that would have won the FA Cup for Liverpool, but was stopped by a brilliant save from Senegal teammate Edouard Mendy.
Tuchel stood up and punched the air – only to feel like he’d been punched in the stomach moments later when Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson saved Mason Mount’s penalty, leaving the substitute. Kostas Tsimikas to complete formalities for Jurgen Klopp’s team.
Painful history repeated itself for Chelsea. They came face to face with Liverpool at Wembley, as they did in the EFL Cup final in February, only for penalties to tear the teams apart at their expense once again.
Tuchel’s head was bowed as he climbed the Wembley steps to collect another loser’s medal after an eventful final that ended Chelsea’s hopes of winning one of the four major trophies.
It also gave them the unwanted record of being the first team to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals after defeats to Arsenal and Leicester City.
Chelsea have suffered trauma on and off the field this season and, despite a likely Champions League spot next season as a reward for their efforts, there is an unmistakable sense that the winds of change will soon be blowing at Stamford Bridge.
Todd Boehly will be Chelsea’s new owner when he takes over from Roman Abramovich, who single-handedly financed the success before being sanctioned and effectively forced to sell because of alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It will be a different ownership model, not just subordinated to one man’s whims and demands, which is good news for Tuchel, because a season without one of those four trophies invariably brings very close scrutiny to Abramovich – even after winning the League. of Champions eleven months ago.
Of course, Boehly will be entirely right to stick with Tuchel, an excellent manager who was also a worthy leader for Chelsea when the club’s future was in limbo and Abramovich ended his time in charge.
On the pitch, Tuchel has issues to resolve and eyes will be on Boehly to see how he navigates and finances Chelsea in the new era.
The club’s defender Anthony Rudiger is leaving for Real Madrid, while their excellent captain Cesar Azpilicueta could also be leaving and another defender, Andreas Christensen, is leaving for Barcelona.
Tuchel has some good players to work with and an expanding academy, as evidenced by the success of Conor Gallagher on loan at Crystal Palace, but great characters and first-rate players must be replaced – all at the end of the season which should be seen as a disappointment when measured in trophies.
The German coach was not helped here by Kai Havertz being ruled out with a hamstring injury before striker Timo Werner reported a similar warm-up issue and felt he could not play.
Chelsea have won the Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup this season, but these are additional trinkets to the serious trophies that have regularly come to Stamford Bridge in recent years.
The biggest dilemma of all may well involve striker Romelu Lukaku, who has been entrusted with a starting spot at Wembley, but has done nothing to dispel growing suspicion that his £97.5m return to Chelsea from Inter Milan last summer is not meant to work.
Lukaku came into the game with decent performances and three goals in Chelsea’s two previous games, but failed to deliver here and received a consoling pat from Tuchel as he was replaced by Hakim Ziyech with five minutes of normal time remaining.
It wasn’t a surprise.
There was no lack of effort and hardly an excess of service, but Lukaku seemed to lack confidence and control, the rare opportunities he had.
He was considered the final piece of Chelsea’s jigsaw puzzle when he arrived following their Champions League final win against Manchester City last June, but after an impressive start has faded amid scrutiny surrounding his off-field comments. about your role in the club.
Lukaku may have a chance to do well in his second season, but he hasn’t returned Chelsea’s big investment. Tuchel gave him a big chance at Wembley and he didn’t take it.
Chelsea and Tuchel have a lot to work with. They’ve led Liverpool every inch of the way in two domestic cup finals, so it’s hardly time for crisis when you can do that.
This will, however, be a crucial summer for a club and fan base that hopes to not only be challenging, but winning, at an elite level.
Chelsea, in the broader picture, are well behind Liverpool and Manchester City, so new owner Boehly should start running in tandem with Tuchel in an attempt to close the gap.
The good news for the manager is that a period of serious uncertainty is over and stability can return.
They now have home games against Leicester City and relegated Watford to confirm Champions League football to get some comeback this season.
That done, and the anguish of that last cruel penalty defeat calmed down, Chelsea and Boehly face a summer that will shape the club’s immediate future.