SSometimes a failure is as good as a mile. Wembley was a feverish place at the end of this grueling and seemingly endless FA Cup final. As the Liverpool players frolic at the east end of the pitch, lost in a haze of red smoke, tumbling and rolling on the grass past a stand that seemed a single mess of limbs and light and noise, the contrast in the other half of the pitch was inevitably austere.
The Chelsea players sat helpless on the turf as the end behind them emptied. And at that moment, these two entities seemed to be heading in totally opposite directions. For Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool it is now a definitive and landmark season, two domestic cups in the bag and another final to come, the semi-impossible quad dream still there.
For 120 minutes, Wembley had provided a point of intersection for these two clubs, once again roped into this stage, chasing the late afternoon sun. But like trains hitting the dots and shearing through their own arc, the feeling of separation was profound at the end.
For Chelsea, it was always an opportunity to say goodbye to something. Abramovich’s age was anchored around those summer beanos, the metropolitan northern line filled with blue shirts and pink flesh, the sense of a ride, a jaunt, a flag day. There will be more of these days, other glories, other eras, other billionaires. But there’s nothing like constantly shaking hands. And there would be no Viking funeral here.
While for Liverpool, Klopp’s supremacy continues to roll. This, it turns out, is the sweet spot. How far can he go from here? There had been a feeling that the thing Klopp had built needed a bit of filing around the edges. Until the spring of this season, a total of two trophies felt a little light in six years of furious progress, for the memories, the style, the imprint left on English football.
An FA Cup victory at Wembley looks like another nuance in the palette, a rounding off. It also pushes the current season towards a truly thrilling ending. What is this thing now? How high can he go? Scroll through the all-time lists and probably Liverpool’s greatest season was 1983-84, when they won the league, the League Cup and the European Cup. Three years before, they had won a League Cup and European Cup double. In 2001 there was another treble, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup.
Triumphing in the current title race seems a long way from here. But if Liverpool beat Real Madrid in two weeks, Klopp’s side would be eyeing a domestic cup double plus the European champions plus 90 league points. This would be one of Liverpool’s great seasons; one of the great English seasons.
This latest European leg looks more daunting after the loss of Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk to injury here. But two weeks is a decent cushion. And the victory here will also speak in Paris, and it shot the sun. Liverpool will travel light. There’s just something about this team and the finals.
The margins are of course thin: penalties after 120 minutes, the width of a post, stoppage with one hand. But somehow, I still felt like the day was heading in that direction.
Wembley had been a delightful sunny spectacle before kick-off, the ground filled with so many pre-match sideshows – the band, a flag, soldiers, Pete Tong and his record player. Last year had been a meager affair of plague-football. This, on the other hand, was all toys in the bag, the full puff of smoke, noise, tongues of fire. But yeah, you kind of knew how it would be until the end, even then.
Chelsea were poor at the start, a team that didn’t seem to know how to move forward, how to get the ball up the pitch, where to stick it. For Liverpool, Luis Díaz was electric, skating inside with that easy sliding style, a footballer who has absolutely no fear, who will take you into those awful spaces and stretch you.
The afternoon started to unfold from this point. In the end, two hours later, the sun had faded into a watery glaze. Players collapsed near the touchline, draping themselves in towels. The Chelsea physio pounded Trevoh Chalobah’s thighs like a man kneading a batch of precious sourdough. And at this point, the rolling total stood at 420 minutes between these two teams, dating back to August last year, with no advantage between them, apart from that long penalty shootout in the spring.
Liverpool had seemed to miss a bit of peak freshness, although they kept running even as the game started to unfold around them. It fell to Mason Mount to miss the decisive penalty, hitting it well enough, but seeing Alisson make a brilliant one-handed save. Kostas Tsimikas rolled the ball into the corner and at that point the day was finally split in two.
For Liverpool, there’s the delicious symmetry of a domestic cup double, the feeling of a scorer left in the record books. Klopp finally has a foothold in domestic cups: it was his third in the last 10 years, his second in three months. Thoughts will now turn to the chance to binge at the end of the season, and some sort of ultimate that is now within reach for this team.