Chelsea make unwanted history in role as continual Wembley bridesmaids
While his team-mates were celebrating, Jordan Henderson was busy consoling. The red flares had been lit, Kostas Tsimikas had set off on a lap of honour and Liverpool were headed for their supporters but their captain was nearer the halfway line, bent over a distraught Mason Mount. For the second time this season, a penalty miss decided a cup final between evenly-matched teams and this time Kepa Arrizabalaga had not ballooned a spot kick into orbit.
Rather, Mount had been denied by Alisson, joining Jerzy Dudek and Bruce Grobbelaar among the Liverpool goalkeepers who have secured silverware in shootouts. For Mount, however, this was a horribly familiar feeling. He has lost at Wembley in finals from the Championship play-offs to Euro 2020, via the Carabao Cup and now three FA Cups. He could be forgiven for wishing the 2024 Champions League final were not being staged at England’s national stadium. He is on course for a clean sweep of silver medals from his trips here.
The nature of such occasions means someone has to be the fall guy. In a sense, there were two: Cesar Azpilicueta has had one of the great Chelsea careers but his omission from the starting line-up was an indication of a dip in form and that the younger, rawer legs of Trevoh Chalobah were instead trusted against Luis Diaz. Off the bench, the captain seemed a safe choice to take the second spot kick. He clipped the outside of the post; it felt another sign that his powers of reliability were diminishing.
For him, a cameo came without saving graces. For Mount, the preceding two hours offered evidence of excellence. He found a diving Alisson with his spot-kick after evading his outfield colleagues. He used the channels either side of Henderson and showed the ability to link up with Christian Pulisic and the overlapping wing-backs alike. Thomas Muller was nicknamed the Raumdeuter, the interpreter of space. Mount’s origins in Portsmouth may prevent him from sharing that nickname but, if Thomas Tuchel reverts to his native tongue, he may find few better ways of describing a player with an uncanny ability to pop up unchecked.
He had teed up Pulisic for perhaps Chelsea’s best chance; if Mount missed chances in the Carabao Cup final, this time the American was the one with the profligate streak. But he often plays well against Liverpool and each had brought Chelsea back into the game with his cleverness after Liverpool buffeted them for the first 15 minutes.
Chelsea’s resilience comes in many forms and, remarkably for a club who were long seen as a billionaire’s plaything, it has come to be their defining characteristic. Liverpool have won two trophies at their expense this season. In another respect, however, they cannot shake them off.
The quadruple chasers have recorded a different sort of quartet against the outgoing champions of Europe: a draw at Anfield and another at Stamford Bridge in the league, a Carabao Cup final where they were still level after 120 minutes and again in an FA Cup final. After 420 minutes, the only thing to separate them this season is penalties. Jurgen Klopp can feel prophetic even when he is being light-hearted. He had joked it would go to extra time and it did. Perhaps it was inevitable: Tuchel can cancel out a predecessor at Mainz and Dortmund in everything except the artificial drama of the shootout.
There can be an improbable element to their resistance. The back three feel an odd alliance but they registered a clean sheet. Antonio Rudiger is a talismanic presence but he is heading off to Real Madrid. Thiago Silva is nearer his 38th birthday than his 37th. Trevoh Chalobah is the newcomer who, a couple of years ago, was playing in midfield for a Huddersfield team battling relegation to League One. He had a torrid start against Diaz and yet outlasted him, departing after 105 minutes after passing a test of character.
Tuchel made a still later change with the shootout in mind, summoning not Arrizabalaga but Ross Barkley, whose first kick of a ball in first-team football in 2022 was to convert. Embarrassment averted for the manager, who risked looking too clever for his own good after substituting Ruben Loftus-Cheek a mere 14 minutes after bringing him on, but glory still evaded Chelsea in a first final in the post-Abramovich era.
As Todd Boehly’s takeover has not yet been completed, maybe this is the Nadine Dorries interregnum, the club with a short-term licence to operate from the government losing out in another national institution. And yet, for all the instability behind the scenes, there remains something quintessentially Chelsea about them.
Over a decade, Azpilicueta has helped forge that identity. Mount is likely to continue it. But a year after the Englishman created the goal in the Champions League final and the Spaniard lifted the trophy, each inadvertently helped make a different kind of history as Chelsea became the first side to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals.