Margins are sometimes impossibly good. Liverpool and Chelsea have met four times this season and drawn four times. But in each of the two cup finals, Liverpool prevailed on penalties.
The Reds have more of a taste of glory and can enjoy more; Chelsea has nothing. This wasn’t quite the 22-shot marathon of the League Cup final in February, but it took 14 shots here to separate the teams, Liverpool GK Alisson ended up saving Chelsea’s Mason Mount before the unlikely figure of reserve left-back Kostas Tsimikas win the FA Cup for Liverpool.
150 years since the first FA Cup Final, this was a day in history: the first 0-0 draw in an FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium (albeit the fifth overall) and the first penalty shootout in the Cup Final of Wembley FA (albeit third overall). It was also Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp’s first FA Cup triumph; by winning both domestic cups this season, he has begun to answer the question that, for all Liverpool’s evident brilliance, he hasn’t won many titles there. There are four major trophies now, with the possibility of two more to come this season.
And that, perhaps, is the real meaning of Liverpool’s victory. When Edouard Mendy saved his Senegal teammate Sadio Mané to bring the shooting to sudden death, there was a clear sense of danger. No team has reached this stage of the season before with hopes of a quadruple (Champions League, Premier League, League Cup and FA Cup) still alive, but given that Manchester City are a clear favorite for the Premier League, the possibility of Liverpool finishing the season with only the less prestigious of England’s two domestic trophies felt very real and that brings a pressure of its own.
There were consequences to the victory, however. Mohamed Salah was forced out in the first half with a groin injury, and Virgil van Dijk left at the end of normal time. There must be doubts about the suitability of both for the remaining two games of the league season and also for the Champions League final against Real Madrid in a fortnight.
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For Chelsea, this was the end of an era. Roman Abramovich’s time as owner will not end with a trophy in his final season, and all that remains is to ensure he qualifies to play in the Champions League next season under the consortium led by Todd Boehly. The form has disintegrated in recent weeks and there are great doubts about the position of centre-forward.
With Kai Havertz injured, Romelu Lukaku started but had little impact on the game, and Timo Werner sat on the bench with a hamstring injury acquired in the warm-up. That left midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek forced into a brief and unconvincing emergency duty as a central striker. He was then removed to the less tarnished Ross Barkley, a bizarre sequence of events that in part meant defenders had to take penalties on penalties.
However, Chelsea were not far from winning this. The two sides have produced four hours of goalless football at Wembley this season, most of it absorbing but with a distinct feel of two managers who know each other extremely well canceling each other out (although there were 58 shots).
Those opening minutes were reminiscent of the semi-final where Liverpool beat Manchester City at half-time. Time and again Luis Díaz found space, exploiting the seemingly shaky understanding between right-back Reece James and Trevoh Chalobah, to the right of the three centre-backs, but once the avenue was closed it was probably Chelsea who looked most likely to score. Attacking midfielder Mason Mount, as usual, looked like the most likely to create the goal, striker Christian Pulisic opened up two decent chances on the side, while left-back Marcos Alonso, in addition to hitting the crossbar with a free kick from an angle tight, repeatedly found space behind Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.
As the game progressed, Liverpool looked in better shape. Díaz’s frustrating afternoon continued with more near misses, with a shot slashing the right post. A minute later, Andy Robertson hit a shot to the left post, but Chelsea held on to extra time, at which point everything looked curiously old-fashioned. The fatigue and anxiety were obvious, less because of Wembley’s famous Cumberland ground than because both sides have played a lot of football this season, Chelsea winning the Club World Cup and Liverpool reaching the Champions League final.
Liverpool briefly looked in danger of having the kind of season that characterized Leeds under Don Revie: going deep in all competitions, wearing themselves out and earning very little. Two trophies are in the bag now this season, two more remain possible. Liverpool need a favor from West Ham against Manchester City on Sunday, but even if the league eludes the Reds, Paris later in the month could deliver a glorious treble of hearts.
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