BEFORE the invention of social media a reasonable way to pass 10 minutes was to try and remember FA Cup finals in reverse order. Some would get stuck on the confusing double Portsmouth era of the late 2000s, others would get misled by false memories of the last few cup finals at the old Wembley, dire encounters which seemed purpose designed to wean people off the excitement highs of early 1990s and earlier. However far you could go, the point was clear: the FA Cup final, even now, is a singular match that still brings in the sort of general audience other competitions do not. This season viewers in the UK even have the choice of terrestrial channels to view it on, with both the BBC and ITV showing the game on Saturday.
For only the second time in English footballing history, the FA Cup final will be a repeat of the League Cup final. In 1993 Arsenal won both trophies and injured Steve Morrow in between. Arsenal actually ended up playing Sheffield Wednesday three times that spring because the FA Cup final ended as a draw and triggered what would be the last ever final replay. It’s fair to say that none of those three games was a classic but hopes are much higher for 2022 because if Liverpool and Chelsea can replicate this season’s Carabao Cup final then Saturday’s game could be as memorable as the last time Liverpool won the FA Cup, way back in 2006 when they beat West Ham on penalties after a 3-3 draw that legally has to be called ‘pulsating’.
Yes the 2022 Carabao Cup final ended 0-0 but it had an xG of 3.63 and enough disallowed goals to build a replica Stockley Park. It was the final proof that games between Liverpool and Chelsea had officially become good again, hinted at earlier on by two sensational drawn games in the Premier League this season. It’s barely credible now but between 2005 and 2007 Liverpool and Chelsea faced each other 16 times, and the vibe was very much ‘two bored imperial destroyers shooting at each others ineffectually with lasers’. Jorge Valdano’s famous rant about the two clubs’ lack of style was as accurate as it was inflammatory. “A short pass? No. A feint? No. A change of pace? No. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don’t be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.”
Let’s hope Jorge tuned into this year’s Carabao Cup final because these teams – our cup finalists – have added feints and one-twos all over the place. For Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel this will a fourth major final with the club in one year and 108 days, an extraordinary record. Should Chelsea lose, though, it will be the third year in a row that their players have to perform the gloomy trudge that is the collection of runners-up medals at Wembley, and that is something that has never happened before in three successive editions, in this the 150th year of the competition.
Fortunately for Chelsea they are facing one of the big English clubs with a troubled record in the FA Cup, with Liverpool only having a 50% win rate from 14 finals. Their last FA Cup final came exactly 10 years ago against Chelsea, with the Blues winning 2-1 before going on to win the Champions League shortly afterwards, while Liverpool’s 1996 defeat to Manchester United was as tedious as 1988’s to Wimbledon was sensational. The FA Cup simply doesn’t feel part of Liverpool’s glorious history in the way that the league or the European Cup does, and yet, should they beat Chelsea on Saturday, only two clubs – Arsenal and Manchester United – will have ever won the trophy more times than they have.
Liverpool’s performance in the first half-half of their semi-final with Manchester City was one of their most ferocious displays of the season and with the Premier League now seemingly slipping away, the chance to complete part two of a glamour version of their 2000-01 cup treble will surely inspire another 400mph exhibition. This will be the first fully-attended cup final since 2019 when Manchester City thrashed Watford 6-0 and a substitute, Kevin De Bruyne, got man of the match. Those are not the ingredients that make up a classic cup final.
Really it’s simple: we want both teams to score, both teams to be leading at some point and at least three players to get cramp. And for once, it feels like the two teams taking part are set up precisely to provide us with this. Don’t let us down Liverpool and Chelsea. Serve us up a cup final for the ages.