Liverpool dig deep to overcome tired legs and give Chelsea their third consecutive FA Cup final defeat

LONDON – They may be battered and injured, their energy drained from a season in which they have played every game possible and most importantly they may be able to do without another key player now, but the Liverpool machine keeps going. Two trophies down, maybe two more to go.

Like two months ago at Wembley, it took them two hours and a penalty shootout to prevail against a tenacious Chelsea side doomed to make history in the 150th year of the FA Cup when they became the first to win three finals in episode lost. It was a cruel fate for Thomas Tuchel and his players after he had “played 240 minutes of the final, 0-0 against perhaps the best attacking team in Europe,” he said.

“We deserve it, as do they.” So it’s a testament to the historic caliber of this Liverpool side that Jurgen Klopp is now eyeing something more remarkable than just the trophy that completed his collection after less than seven years on Merseyside.

It’s likely with their quadruple pursuit ending in the next eight days that Manchester City will do enough in the remaining two games to claim first place in the Premier League. But even if that is the case, and even if Real Madrid win the Champions League in Paris, it should be remembered as one of the greatest seasons in Liverpool’s illustrious history. Klopp may have a deeper squad than at any time in his tenure – let alone compared to years past – but that continues to stretch. There is no rest for his key players at this stage of the season, and yet they dig deep enough in an endless series of games.

The team that ended the 30-year wait for a league title have now ended the shorter but not insignificant wait for an FA Cup at 16. It may still have come at the expense of the fights ahead, with Mohamed Salah injuring his groin early in the contest and Virgil van Dijk withdrawn with a muscle injury, but few in red would have traded the crimson smoke that enveloped their ecstatic end Wembley for a fully fit squad ready for further glory.

If such a thing can be imagined, even more faith rushes through Liverpool as they battle halfway to unprecedented glory in English football. As match-winner Alisson put it: “It gives us more confidence going into the Premier League and also going into the Champions League final. It’s an amazing moment. Now all we have to do is enjoy.” They won’t have long, but they deserve to make the most of their time. Klopp’s ‘mental monsters’ have endured quite a physical and emotional test in Chelsea’s two domestic cup finals this season.

In their four meetings this season, these two teams have reliably brought out the best in each other. None of the previous three matchups produced a winner, no wonder Klopp’s side attacked this competition from the start with one side’s determination to get drawn into a battle in the trenches. Thiago flew into tackles, the front three chasing every ball while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson flew over their shoulders.

The initial intensity couldn’t last. This was Liverpool’s 60th game of the season, Chelsea’s 61. Every single one of those 5,500 minutes seemed to strain Wembley field. With less than a quarter of the game played, Thiago Silva limped while Edouard Mendy stretched his legs in discomfort. At the other end, Alisson would soon join him, while Caoimhin Kelleher didn’t need to repeat his exploits in the EFL Cup Final, it was only a matter of time before someone dropped out.

There seemed to be nothing special that forced Mohamed Salah to fall to the grass in the 33rd minute. While Jurgen Klopp was willing to wait and see because of Alisson’s fitness, there was no room for debate when it came to his top scorer. It may have meant another rotten final for the Egyptian but Liverpool are hoping his quick action is enough to maintain his fitness to retaliate on either side.

Here was a game where even the substitutes didn’t look 100 percent ready. As regulation time drew to a close, Timo Werner was called out from his warm-up, seemingly to freshen up a Chelsea attack that had run up and down many hard yards. But the German’s left hamstring appeared to be causing him discomfort, and a masseuse was on hand to mend just enough.

Against such heavy legs, Liverpool’s January reinforcement Luis Diaz was as light as a feather. He’s not short of games himself, but maybe half a season in Portugal doesn’t demand quite as much. When Alexander-Arnold fired a cross-field ball down the left channel, he had many yards to catch Trevoh Chalobah. He did so with ease but might have done better with a low shot that cannoned into Mendy’s legs before being chopped off by the keeper.

At least the injury-hit first half gave Thomas Tuchel time to make adjustments which, for some reason, gave the Blues, who for some reason were dressed in yellow from head to toe, a foothold in the game. It came at the expense of their attacking game as Reece James stepped in to deal with Diaz and Mason Mount tasked with chasing Robertson, occasionally having to leave Romelu Lukaku and Christian Pulisic to their own devices.

The latter did so quite effectively, particularly in the early knocks of the second half. He has a knack for timing his runs from the box to a tee shot; Having already seen an attempt rolling just behind Alisson’s far post, Alexander-Arnold did a superb job of catching a cross from James before his American opponent could concede it.

After the disappointment two years ago when he looked set to become Chelsea’s match-winner simply because injury forced him against Arsenal, Pulisic seemed determined to make this his final. Nobody seemed to be running hard yards anymore, one minute he was dropping into midfield to dribble past an opponent, the next he was being shot into 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 number 10 to make room for Hakim Ziyech, it soon dropped to the 9 of Romelu Lukaku was changed.

By this point Chelsea were clinging as they had at the start of the game, the Duracell bunny who was Diaz getting too close twice on either side of Robertson and slamming James Milner’s delivery from close range against the post.

With 90 minutes kick-off, another half-hour felt like a grueling exertion for these two, who had dug into the deepest recesses of their muscles to give Wembley one of the better cup finals in recent memory. Van Dijk couldn’t see this either, a muscle problem ended his night before extra time. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on to add to the attack and managed the full 13 minutes before being sacrificed when penalties loomed. One decision Tuchel upheld was making sure his best penalty takers were on the pitch.

This time, Tuchel opted against breaking the glass holding Kepa Arrizabalaga back from penalties after the penalty specialist failed to save in the EFL Cup final. Mendy has at least managed to justify the faith placed in him, delaying Liverpool’s coronation when he sat low to his left to refuse Sadio Mane and denied his compatriot a chance to clinch victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, to secure World Cup qualification and an FA Cup on the spot.

However, it only served to delay Liverpool’s coronation. Alisson walked to his left, conveniently sparing Mason Mount the effort. As he looked jubilantly at the sky, he didn’t seem to doubt for a second that Kostas Tsimikas would take care of the business a few seconds later. As so often during Klopp’s tenure, that belief was firmly vindicated. Liverpool dig deep to overcome tired legs and give Chelsea their third consecutive FA Cup final defeat

Justin Scacco

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