The enduring appeal of the oldest cup competition in football was on show again at Wembley as Liverpool beat Chelsea in another dramatic shoot out.
Liverpool 0 (Liverpool win 6-5 on penalties)
The outpouring of joy and emotion in the red half of Wembley when Kostas Tsimikas calmly put away his penalty kick at the end of a gruelling afternoon was testament once again to the enduring magic of the FA Cup.
Try telling Tsimikas, his team-mates, Jurgen Klopp or the thousands of Liverpool fans at Wembley that the old pot has lost its lustre. The FA Cup final may no longer be the finale of the English season, squeezed as it is between Premier League fixtures and Football League promotion playoffs, but there are few occasions in world sport that can match the atmosphere, drama and emotion of the oldest cup competition in the world’s biggest sport.
Wembley was a sea of red by the end of the game, Blues fans having left to reveal thousands of empty red seats at one end while Liverpool’s fans showed their support with their red shirts, scarves, flags and flares to celebrate this hard-fought victory.
It is another trophy for the cabinet, another Wembley win, and another step on the way to an unprecedented quadruple.
It was not the greatest of games, but sometimes it is all about the result, and there was enough drama and emotion in the penalty shootout to compensate for all the missed chances in the preceding two hours of football. Just as in the Carabao Cup final in February, a goalless draw was followed by Liverpool winning on penalties.
The afternoon had started with unbounded optimism on both sides. Traditionally, the FA Cup final has always been about the build-up as much as the denouement, and anticipation was palpable in the pubs, bars and fan zones around Wembley Way.
Chelsea fans were full of confidence, as befits a side that upset the odds to beat Manchester City in the Champions League final last May, while Liverpool supporters sang out about their most recent cup final victory, over the Blues in the Carabao Cup here ten weeks ago.
Inside Wembley, the atmosphere built towards fever pitch before a ball had been kicked, with the British national anthem booed loudly in the Liverpool end, and smoke from flares filling the air shortly before kickoff.
The smell of cordite clearly inspired Jurgen Klopp’s heavy metal warriors more than Thomas Tuchel’s troops, as Liverpool went at Chelsea ferociously from the off. Luis Diaz looked like he was going to enjoy the freedom of Wembley as he was afforded acres of space on Liverpool’s left, and should have scored when an exquisite outside-of-the-boot pass from Trent Alexander Arnold sent him in on goal. Edouard Mendy stuck out a leg to slow down the ball, Trevoh Chalobah cleared off the line, and Tuchel decided to make a tactical tweak, dropping Reece James to a deeper position than his starting role as right wing-back.
Still Liverpool’s players looked hungrier, their fans louder, and their manager angrier when even small decisions went against them. The Reds were up for it on and off the pitch.
But they had little to show for their domination in the opening half-hour and seemed to run out of steam and ideas when Mo Salah limped off after 33 minutes.
Chances began to come Chelsea’s way, though in keeping with the mood of the match, they could not convert them into goals. Christian Pulisic dragged one shot wide and had another blocked. Romelu Lukaku demonstrated why doubts remain about him, with a poor first touch letting him down after Mason Mount put him in on goal.
The frenetic fervour of the opening period was replaced by a more pedestrian pace by half-time . Both teams looked in need of a break and a team-talk, and when they emerged for the second half, it was a different game.
The baking sun that covered half of Wembley for an hour had turned to shadow, and while the ambient temperature cooled, tempers flared as the heat of battle intensified.
Chelsea were livelier than Liverpool straight after the break, making Alisson’s life more uncomfortable than it had been earlier. Pulisic forced a good save and was denied another chance by a brilliant tackle from Alexander Arnold, while Marcos Alonso whipped a free-kick against the Liverpool crossbar.
But the Reds hit the woodwork, too, with Diaz and Diogo Jota hitting the left and right-hand uprights in the space of a minute. Diaz looked like he would score in the dying minutes of normal time when he raced into a one-on-one with Thiago Silva, who forced him wide before the Colombian curled in a powerful shot that beat Mendy’s outstretched arms but sailed agonisingly wide of the far post. It was the third big chance missed by Diaz.
The frustration of Liverpool’s fans was not helped when cameras caught Ian Rush and Sir Kenny Dalglish sitting near the Royal Box. How Klopp could have done with the finishing power of those Anfield legends.
Chelsea also lacked a cutting edge, with the luckless Lukaku never looking like scoring, so well marshalled was he by VirgilVan Dijk. It was no great surprise to see the big Belgian hauled off before the end of normal time. Van Dijk departed too, during the short break before extra time, and soon Diaz joined him on the sidelines. Even more surprisingly, Tuchel sent on Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the 105th minute, only to withdraw him 13 minutes later.
Extra time was as ever, an exercise in survival. Tired legs led to sloppy mistakes, and there was hardly a chance of note in the additional half-hour.
And so on to another shootout. Just like before, 120 minutes without a goal was followed by a shootout of incredible drama. When Cesar Azpilicueta missed Chelsea’s second, with possibly his last kick for the club, it was advantage Liverpool, and Sadio Mane had the chance to seal victory with the last of the scheduled ten spot kicks. But he missed, it went to sudden death, Alisson saved from Mount and Tsimikas was left with the chance to write his name in Liverpool folklore. He did not miss, one of end of Wembley went wild with an explosion of joy and smoke, while the opposite end emptied quickly as the losers hurried home.
It was an extraordinarily emotional end to a special afternoon which proved once again there is little to beat the magic of the FA Cup.