Date: Saturday May 5th
K.O. : 5.15 PM (BST)
Venue: Wembley Stadium
Saturday May 5th sees Liverpool face Chelsea in the F.A. Cup final at Wembley. The show-piece final, which was once the final game of the English season, will be watched live on television by millions of people in tens of countries around the world. The English F.A. have done their best to spoil the tradition of the event in recent years by bringing the date of the final forward, allocating fewer and fewer tickets to fans and, most recently, switching it from an afternoon to an evening kick-off. However, the F.A. Cup retains its unique appeal and remains the most famous domestic cup competition in the world, with this year’s final set to be an epic.
Liverpool and Chelsea football clubs have built up an intense rivalry over the last decade, although the two clubs never really had a relationship in the past, the emergence of Chelsea as a force to be reckoned with at the turn of the millennium heralded a change in that situation. On the final day of the 2002/03 season Chelsea came to Anfield needing a victory to knock Liverpool out of the Champions’ League berths and secure one for themselves. After falling behind, Jesper Gronkjaer scored the winner for the Blues in Zola’s final game. Chelsea won 1-2 finishing fourth, shortly afterwards Abramovich bought the club and their place amongst the top sides was secured.
The rivalry between the two clubs intensified much further with the arrivals on Merseyside and in West London of Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho respectively. Both were foreign managers cut from very different cloths, arriving in England to take the helm at two giants of the English game. Chelsea had the upper hand in the league encounters and had won the Carling Cup final when the two teams met; the managers’ relationship, in the beginning, was friendly, however, that all changed one night at Anfield in May 2005.
Liverpool had drawn Chelsea in the Champions’ League semi-final and in the fourth minute, Luis Garcia scored what became known as the “Ghost Goal”. Mourinho fumed, still to this day he claims that the ball never crossed the line, a point that the goal-scorer, naturally, completely disagrees with: “They called it the ghost goal, I don’t know why. It was in, it was in. I’ve always known that, it was over the line.”
Whether it crossed the line or not may have proved immaterial to the result, as Petr Cech would have been sent off and conceded a penalty for a challenge in the build-up, but that, now, is beside the point. Liverpool went on to win the Champions’ League that year, Chelsea have found it difficult to get over. The animosity intensified, particularly between the managers, prompting Benitez to recall: “We were good friends until we started beating them, Jose was only friends with the managers he beat.”
The European meetings between the two sides continued at pace with them facing each other again in the 2007 Champions’ League semi-final; Liverpool again won, this time on penalties, Mourinho losing out to Benitez on the big stage once again, before leaving Stamford Bridge before the end of the following season. In 2008 Chelsea got their revenge, after a 94th minute Riise own goal gave them a precious away goal at Anfield, from which Liverpool could not recover in the second-leg. Remarkably the two sides met in the quarter-final of the same competition the following year, with Guus Hiddink’s Blues winning through after an epic encounter.
The ill-feeling between Chelsea and Liverpool has come about primarily because of the number of times they’ve had to play each other. This Saturday’s Wembley final will be their 31st meeting in 8 seasons, a rate of almost four encounters a season, double the norm. It is also because they have met at vital stages of cup competitions where the winner takes all and the loser nothing, making defeat hard for the losing players and fans to take and winning all the more sweet for the victors.
If you add to that Liverpool fans’ proud sense of history and tradition, which Chelsea fans disregard, versus the perception of Chelsea fans by most others as, new kids on the block, loadsamoney, plastic flag wavers, the rivalry is stoked even further. Unfortunately, the rivalry between fans went too far last month when, a minority of, Chelsea supporters noisily interrupted the one-minute silence in remembrance of Hillsborough, before their F.A. Cup semi-final with Tottenham.
All this recent history means that the atmosphere at Wembley will hopefully be electric, despite the F.A.s decision to only allocate half the tickets to fans and keep the rest for corporate types or “friends of the F.A./Wembley Stadium”. All that said, how are the teams likely to match up?
Liverpool have been to Wembley twice already this season and have emerged victorious on both occasions. Although their league form has been inconsistent since the turn of the year, in the cups they have performed tremendously well, raising their game whenever necessary to make sure of victory. The Reds have played good football against all of the top teams this season, including seeing off their opponents twice already, once in the league 1-2 and once in the Carling Cup quarter-final, 0-2. Both these matches took place at Stamford Bridge and will instill a sense of confidence in the Liverpool side going into the weekend.
Although Kenny Dalglish will be without long-term absentees, Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam, he has no new injuries to worry about ahead of Saturday’s clash. In fact, Dalglish rested the majority of his first-team in the midweek match against Fulham, meaning that they should be fighting fit for the F.A. Cup showdown.
Luis Suarez, who last week scored a tremendous hat-trick against Norwich and is regarded by many as one of the World’s very best, will be a key factor in Liverpool’s performance. The Uruguayan’s pace and trickery as well as his eye for goal are likely to give John Terry and the other Chelsea defenders great cause for concern. Gerrard will start and Andy Carroll may just be preferred to Dirk Kuyt, although the Dutchman’s workrate and knack of scoring vital goals could earn him a place in the starting line-up. Jose Enrique will come in at left back, with Carragher dropping to the bench and Stewart Downing is likely to start ahead of Craig Bellamy, although, with Kenny Dalglish you can never quite be 100% sure.
Chelsea will be making their second trip of the campaign to Wembley, having dispatched Spurs 5-1 there in the semi-final, albeit with the help of their own “ghost goal”, the difference being that replays clearly showed that this one didn’t cross the line. After a fairly unhappy half-season under Andre Villas Boas, the Blues have re-found their form under, interim boss, Roberto di Matteo and look a team that is back to its best, beating Barcelona to reach the Champions’ League final.
That said, Chelsea are desperate to qualify for the Champions’ League next season and, because of this, they are still fighting on three fronts. Defeat against Newcastle at Stamford Bridge in midweek dented their hopes of securing fourth spot in the league, however, they are still in with a shout and, should they fail, can still qualify if they beat Bayern Munich in Munich on May 19th. With so many important games coming thick and fast and the Champions’ League, undoubtedtly, regarded as the be all and end all by Abramovich, the Blues’ focus may not be fully on this Saturday’s game.
Chelsea will be without Gary Cahill and David Luiz for the final, with Jose Bosingwa likely to keep his place in the back four. Lampard will start, as will Ramires and Mata in midfield. The big question is whether di Matteo will plump for Drogba up-front, with his magnificent Wembley strike rate, or play Fernando Torres, scorer of four in his last three, against his former club. Torres has started the last two, whilst Drogba has been rested since that night at the Camp Nou.
As far as a prediction goes, it will undoubtedly be a tight affair as most cup finals tend to be. With Liverpool’s season being what it has been and the F.A. Cup now absolutely essential for them to prove that this year has been successful, I think that they will just edge it. Chelsea had a tough game in midweek, they weren’t really able to rest too many key players, and, with the league position and Champions’ League final still to consider, their minds’ may be elsewhere.
Liverpool will have the psychological edge having already beaten Chelsea twice in the campaign so far and Suarez’s mercurial talent may be too much for a Chelsea back four which has had to be changed with alarming regularity in recent weeks. Should the game go all the way, Liverpool’s experience beating Cardiff on penalties should give them the upper hand.
My prediction Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea, Luis Suarez to score
Luis Garcia Image by Claudio Pozo