Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Liverpool dig deep to overcome tired legs and hand Chelsea record third straight FA Cup final loss

LONDON — They may be battered and bruised, their energy levels depleted by a season in which they have played every possible game and, crucially they may now perhaps without another key player, but still the Liverpool machine rolls on. Two trophies down, perhaps two more to go.

As was the case two months ago at Wembley, it took two hours and a penalty shootout for them to get the better of an obdurate Chelsea side, doomed to make history in the FA Cup’s 150th year as the first to lose three successive finals. That was a cruel fate on Thomas Tuchel and his players after what he noted had been “240 minutes of final time, played 0-0 against maybe the best attacking team in Europe,” he said.

“We deserved it, as they did as well.” It is a testament, then, to the historic caliber of this Liverpool side that Jurgen Klopp now has his eyes on something rather more remarkable than just the trophy that completed his collection after less than seven years on Merseyside. 

The likelihood is their quadruple pursuit will end in the next eight days, that Manchester City will do enough in the remaining two games to clinch top spot in the Premier League. But even if that is the case, abd even if Real Madrid win the Champions League in Paris, this ought to be remembered as one of the great seasons in Liverpool’s illustrious history. Klopp might have a deeper squad to call on than he has at any stage in his tenure — let alone in comparison with years gone by — but that continues to be stretched. There is no rest for his key players at this stage of the season and yet in a never ending spree of matches they keep digging deep enough.

The team that ended the 30 year wait for a league title has now ended the shorter but not insignificant wait for an FA Cup at 16 years. It may yet have come at a cost for the battles ahead with Mohamed Salah having injured his groin early in the contest and Virgil van Dijk being withdrawn with a muscle injury, but few in red would have swapped the red smoke that bathed their ecstatic end of Wembley for a fully fit squad with which to chase further glory.

If it is possible to imagine such a thing, yet more belief is coursing through Liverpool at the halfway mark of their bid for unprecedented glory in the English game. As match winner Alisson put it, “This gives us more confidence in the Premier League and also the Champions League final. It’s a fantastic moment. Now, we just need to enjoy.” They won’t have long but they deserve to make the most of what time they have. Klopp’s “mentality monsters” have come through quite the examination, physical and emotional, by Chelsea over this season’s two domestic cup finals.

Across their four meetings this season these two teams have reliably brought the best out of each other. None of the three earlier matchups brought a winner, no wonder Klopp’s side attacked this contest from the off with the determination of a side loath to get dragged into a battle in the trenches. Thiago flew into challenges, the front three chased every ball with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson flying over their shoulders.

The initial intensity could not last. This was Liverpool’s 60th match of the season, Chelsea’s 61st. Every one of those 5,500 minutes seemed to be weighing down on the Wembley field. With less than a quarter of the match played Thiago Silva was hobbling, Edouard Mendy stretching his legs in discomfort. Up the other end Alisson would soon join him, while Caoimhin Kelleher was not required to reprise his EFL Cup final heroics it was only going to be a matter of time before someone tapped out.

There did not seem to be anything in particular that forced Mohamed Salah to drop to the turf in the 33rd minute. Where Jurgen Klopp had been prepared to wait it out over Alisson’s fitness, there was no room for debate where his top scorer was concerned. It may have meant another rotten final for the Egyptian but Liverpool will hope their swift action is enough to preserve his fitness for a chance to take revenge on both sides.

Here was a game where even the substitutes did not look 100 percent ready to go. As normal time wound down Timo Werner was summoned from his warm up, seemingly to freshen up a Chelsea attack that had run plenty of hard yards up and down the pitch. Yet, the German’s left hamstring looked to be causing him discomfort, a masseuse at the ready to patch him up just about enough.

Against such heavy legs, Liverpool’s January reinforcement Luis Diaz was feather light. He is not short on games himself, but perhaps a half season in Portugal does not demand quite as much. When Alexander-Arnold fired a cross-field ball into the left channel, he had plenty of yards to make up on Trevoh Chalobah. He did so with ease but might have done better with a low shot that cannoned against Mendy’s legs before being hacked off the goalie.

The injury-addled nature of the first half at least gave Thomas Tuchel time to make adjustments that offered the Blues, for some reason bedecked head to toe in yellow, a foothold in the game. It came at a cost to their attacking play with Reece James tucking in to deal with Diaz and Mason Mount tasked with tracking Robertson, on occasion leaving Romelu Lukaku and Christian Pulisic to fend for themselves.

The latter did so rather effectively, particularly in the early knockings of the second half. He has a knack for timing his penalty box runs to a tee; having already seen one effort roll just beyond Alisson’s far post, Alexander-Arnold did superbly to reach a James cross before his American opponent could turn it in.

After the disappointment of two years ago, when he looked destined to be Chelsea’s match winner only for injury to force him out against Arsenal, Pulisic seemed determined to make this his final. No one seemed to be running more hard yards, one minute he was dropping into midfield to dribble past an opponent, the next getting a shot away in the box. He might have done better with the chances that came his way but it said everything about Tuchel’s assessment of his performance that when the fourth official raised the No.10 to make way for Hakim Ziyech it was soon swapped to Romelu Lukaku’s nine.

By then, Chelsea were clinging on as they had been at the start of the game, the Duracell bunny that was Diaz going close twice either side of Robertson slamming James Milner’s delivery against the post from close range.

When the whistle sounded after 90 minutes, another half hour felt like a cruel imposition on these two, who had dug into the deepest recesses of their muscles to provide Wembley with one of the better cup finals in recent memory. Even van Dijk could not see this out, a muscle issue ended his night before extra time. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was subbed to bolster the attack and managed all of 13 minutes before he was sacrificed as the shoot out loomed, a decision Tuchel confirmed was to ensure his best penalty takers were on the pitch. 

This time, Tuchel opted against breaking the glass that held Kepa Arrizabalaga back from the shootout after the spot kick specialist was unable to make a save in the EFL Cup final. Mendy did at least manage to justify the faith shown in him, delaying Liverpool’s coronation when he got down low to his left to deny Sadio Mane, robbing his compatriot of the chance to secure Africa Cup of Nations victory, World Cup qualification and an FA Cup from the spot.

It merely served to delay Liverpool’s coronation however. Alisson went to his left, comfortably saving Mason Mount’s effort. As he looked to the heavens in jubilation he did not seem to doubt for a second that Kostas Tsimikas would do the business a few seconds later. As has been the case for so much of Klopp’s tenure, that faith was vindicated in emphatic fashion.

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