The FA Cup final, sponsored by an American beer, kicking off at 5.15 on a Saturday afternoon while other matches are being played on the same day. It is on such occasions that one is tempted to think that it might not necessarily be the clubs or the supporters that are the most intent on destroying the spectacle of this most enduring fixtures in the sporting calendar, but those charged with the job of keeping this day alive, in the face of the all-encompassing grip of the Premier League and the Champions League.For all the glamour of having two of the clubs in the final that look down on the rest of English football from somewhere approaching its summit, however, this FA Cup final has the feeling of being a match that only its mother could love. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a season that has come to be defined allegations of racist behaviour on the pitch (and very definite racism away from it) should feature the two protaganists at the very heart of these frequently tiresome stories.
More significantly, perhaps, this match is a distraction for one and an exercise in face-saving for the other. Chelsea have at least one eye on the Champions League final, which is to be played in Munich in three weeks time, as evinced by their home defeat at the hands of Newcastle United during the week. This was a defeat which further accentuated the importance of that match, even if we disregard the probability that the club may never have a better chance of becoming the champions of Europe and, for all the fine words of the players, staff and supporters of the club , everybody knows this.
Liverpool’s position is somewhat different. This is a match that really does matter to them, in that victory would allow them the application of a fig leaf which may partially cover a disastrous time of things in the league this season. The defenders of Kenny Dalglish have already been particularly noisy in using their penalty shoot-out win in the League Cup final over Cardiff City of the Championship as proof of “Progress” made by the team on the pitch this season. These people are fooling no-one – except, perhaps, for themselves – but a second cup win would salvage a hint of respectability to a season which has emphatically not gone according to plan in the league. The trinkets of tradition are still in place, of course. “Abide With Me” has been sung at every FA Cup final since 1927, but it has seldom been rendered with less enthusiasm than this year. The minor royals of days gone by are conspicuous by their absence this year, replaced by the former England captain Jimmy Armfield, who has recently won a considerably more battle than any cup final, against cancer of the throat. It’s a nice touch, a hint of the grandeur this occasion used to carry, as is the decision to invite Fabrice Muamba, who came close to dying while taking part in this very competition earlier this year.
These brief glimpses of tradition turn out to be more entertaining than most of what we see throughout the first half, though. It is an undistinguished forty-five minutes of football, punctuated by only two moments that really serve to lift the greyness of the afternoon. After ten minutes, the red sea that is Liverpool’s defence parts ingratiatingly when Jay Spearing loses the ball needlessly in midfield to Ramires, who runs through a firs a low shot that Reina can only turn into the goal. The Liverpool goalkeeper hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory there – it was a shot that was powerful, but straight at the goalkeeper, and at this level of the game these shots should be saved. Liverpool react positively to the goal, and within a couple of minutes Craig Bellamy has a shot well blocked by Ivanovic. From here on, however, what we see most vividly is the very clear difference in the quality of the teams. Liverpool are overrun in midfield, with none of their players in the middle third of the pitch apparently able to cope with the pace and controlled physicality of Ramires. Chelsea are controlling the match with comfort, and when half-time comes it doesn’t feel as if there could be any way back into the match for Liverpool.
Six minutes into the second half, the difference between the two sides that we witnessed during the first half manfiests itself in something tangible in the form of a second Chelsea goal. Frank Lampard has rather been rolling back the years in recent weeks, and his turn and intelligent pass finds Didier Drogba, who sweeps the ball past Reina to set a new record with his fourth goal in different FA Cup finals for Chelsea. At this stage, Liverpool are being run absolutley ragged, but it is a substitution that turns that game back on its head. Cometh the hour, almost cometh the man: Andy Carroll. There has been a lot of cruelty thrown in the direction of Carroll this season, but his introduction to the match gives Liverpool the purpose and shape that they have been lacking without him. He has only been on the pitch for nine minutes when he collects the ball eight yards from goal, takes a moment to collect himself and lashes the ball into the roof of the goal to drag Liverpool back into the match. Chelsea are visibly rattled by the goal, and the tide of the match turns accordingly. Carroll, bringing all the best charcteristics of a bull in a china shop, weaves between a Chelsea defence that has been lulled into something of a false sense of security by Liverpool’s inertia over the course of the first hour or so of the match.
A Liverpool match wouldn’t be a Liverpool match, however, without some sort of controversy. With eight minutes to play, Carroll, five yards out, powers a header towards the goal. Petr Cech throws his arm out, and pushes it onto the underside of the crossbar. It bounces down and out. The initial, reflex reaction is to believe that the ball has crossed the line, but the linesman signals to the referee and no goal is awarded. It takes a couple of minutes and replays from several different angles to get somewhere close to confirming that the ball didn’t fully cross the line – or, at the very least, that it can’t be anything like conclusively proved that it did.
On ITV, there is a hint of desperation to prove that it did, and co-commentator Andy Townsend wraps himself in logical knots trying to fight the case for goal-line technology to prove something, one way or the other. The truth of the matter is that this incident has ended with a quite fantastic save from Cech and a brilliant decision from the linesman. The debate over this sort of technology will not end with today’s events, but the case in its favour has been significantly weakened by today’s events.
By the skin of their teeth, then, Chelsea win the FA Cup for the fourth time in seventh year and the seventh time in their history. The decision not to award Andy Carroll’s header towards the end of the match was the correct one, but wrong decisions have been made before and Chelsea might consider themselves a little fortunate that, for the second round in a row, a tight goal-line decision went in their favour. This was a result that has also further cemented Roberto di Matteo’s claims on a full-time shot at the poisoned chalice that this particular job has become since the departure of Jose Mourinho from Stamford Bridge. First the FA Cup, next stop Europe. Chelsea’s season isn’t over yet.
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