Somewhere in Moscow, in a luxury villa, in an exclusive location, Roman Abramovich put the non-vintage champagne back in the fridge. Times are hard when he’s down to his last few billion – and retired for the evening. The era dominated by the sanctioned Vladimir Putin crony ended as it began, ultimately frustrated by Liverpool.
Liverpool, that perennial thorn in Chelsea’s side in the Abramovich’s era that now dies a slow death, cavorted around the pitch as their fans unleashed a thick plume of red smoke at one end of Wembley that hung like a haze in the north west London evening.
Of course, Abramovich, who oversaw 19 major trophies and two Community Shield wins, couldn’t be here. You put £1.6 billion into a side and you can’t even get a ticket for the final, if you’re enabling an aggressive unprovoked war provoked by your political mentor. His successor Todd Boehly was in the stands instead.
Liverpool beat Chelsea at Wembley on penalties to win the FA Cup on Saturday afternoon
As a result, Roman Abramovich will have put the non-vintage champagne back in the fridge
But as Kostas Tsimakos, an unlikely hero if ever there was one, tucked the 13 penalty of the day into the bottom right hand corner, there was a symmetry to familiar joust between these two teams. At the start of Abramovich’s days, Chelsea reigned in the league but couldn’t get past Liverpool in those epic semi finals in the Champions League, the trophy he really wanted.
Back then, Liverpool couldn’t compete financially. But over time, they have surpassed Chelsea. They are a better-run club and superior side. And so here, in a superb contest – ignore the score-line, focus on the epic ebb and flow of the game – Chelsea came up short. Only just, but it will feel a bitter blow nonetheless, having lost the Carabao Cup final to Liverpool in precisely the same circumstances.
Generally under Abramovich Chelsea have found a way to win these set-piece occasions. Whether that be the Camp Nou and Munich in 2012 or winning a Europa League final in a below-par season or with tactical adjustments in their most recent league titles under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.
Abramovich, who claimed 19 trophies and two Community Shields, couldn’t be at Wembley
Tuchel continued that tradition in Porto, last year, against a superior Manchester City side in the Champions League final, where he kept his cool against a strangely rattled Pep Guardiola. Again, they did so on penalties, in the UEFA Super Cup against Real Villareal, hanging in at times but getting the job done. Then there was the FIFA World Club final, for which they were overwhelming favourites yet were taken to extra time. A penalty three minutes from the end saw them lift that Cup.
Even here in the penalty shoot out, when they went 5-4 down and were on the cusp of losing, Edouard Mendy saved them, with a dive to his left to deny his Senegal team-mate Sadio Mane. Chelsea, back from the dead, were on the front foot when Hakim Ziyech scored their sixth spot kick and Diogo Jota had to score to keep Liverpool in it. He did. Mount then missed, Alisson saving brilliantly, a strong hand up to his left and having to ensure he jumped and picked up the rebound which was spinning towards goal. Had he over celebrated his good work would have been in vain. He set the stage for Tsimmikas’s moment of glory. He seized his moment and Chelsea’s durability was nothing but an impressive footnote.
Here, it had seemed early on they had met their match. Just as in the semi-final at Wembley, Liverpool roared out of the traps. Literally. The volume from the red end of the stadium was noticeably louder and the crescendo of noise carried the Liverpool team, who tore into Chelsea. Missing Kai Havertz, Chelsea were already weakened and the vulnerability never seemed more exposed than it than opening 15 minutes.
There is something especially brutal in watching one player identified as a weak link and being targeted by a world-class team. Trevoh Chalobah fell into that category, like the slowed buffalo scrambling out of the river as the lions converge. Three times in the first nine minutes, Liverpool hit cross-field balls to allow Luis Diaz either to run at him or in behind him. Chelsea were helpless. Tuchel was desperately shouting from the touchline, trying to help the 22-year-old cope. Really, Chalobah should have been punished when Diaz ran free of him for the third time on nine minutes, Mendy saved Chelsea, sprawling himself in front of the Colombian. The ball bobbled and Chalobah it was who got back to scramble it away.
It was Kostas Tsimakos who tucked the 13 penalty of the day into the bottom right hand corner
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s Mason Mount failed to convert from the penalty spot to keep them in it
And yet Chalobah didn’t crumble. He didn’t fold. He endured that awful opening quarter but stood strong thereafter. And, unlike City, who were 3-0 down at half time when Liverpool did this to them, Chelsea stayed in the game.
Slowly Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho established a grip of the midfield, conceding possession but releasing more agile and sharper runners on the counter. By the end of the half they had created the best chances, Pulisic shooting wide from Mount’s cross on 23 minutes and Alonso’s poor touch allowing Alisson to smother when the Spaniard should have scored on 28 minutes.
Then a major boost for any side facing Liverpool: Mohammed Salah clutching his groin, limping off on 32 minutes. For Chelsea, it came at just the right time to bolster their growing self-belief.
The mark of a great coach is a side that is transformed at half time. That’s the real skill of the job, turning around a team’s mentality, adjusting tactics in frantic 15 minute break in a chaotic dressing room. Tuchel does this consistently. Chelsea came out and battered Liverpool for ten minutes, sezing the initiave, dominating possession with every player a further ten metres up the pitch. Alonso went close from a Pulsic cross and then Alonso rattled the cros bar with a free kick from wide right. Chelsea weren’t simply inte game. They were in control.
Naturally, that wouldn’t last. An absorbing contest, just like the Carabao Cup final, ensued. If the company famous for making insipid lager did 0-0 Cup finals, then they would involve these two teams and be like this: full of goal-mouth action, slightly manic and yet involving moments of superb skill and precision.
Tuchel, even by his own extreme standards, grew increasingly manic on the touchline
By the end of 90 minutes, Chelsea were in truth, hanging on. Luis Diaz returned to haunt them cutting inside and thumping a shot against the post on 83 minutes. A minute later Milner delivered a perfect cross, hanging at far post, Andy Robertson sprinted towards it, got the necessary touch only to see it ricochet off the post. The Liverpool fans in front of him looked ready to spontaneously combust in the excitement of it all.
Extra time came, by now it was resembling the final rounds of heavyweight boxing contest, the opponents grappling and dodging, afraid on one late knock-out blow. Liverpool lost Virgil van Dijk to injury, Romelu Lukaku, largely ineffective, was withdrawn.
Tuchel, even by his own extreme standards, grew increasingly manic on the touchline. We ended 0-0, the first time since 2005. But this final was nothing like that, when Arsene Wenger went against all previous instincts, parked the bus and hung on for penalties to beat Manchester United. A compelling final was followed a dramatic shoot out with it’s a narrative arc of its own, with Liverpool on the front foot and then Chelsea. And yet Liverpool prevailed. And the Abramovich era of Cup finals ended, not with a victory lap but in defeat.