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Old traditions meet modern convention in FA Cup final of promise

By Jonathan Liew
Mohamed Salah of Liverpool; Mason Mount celebrates scoring for Chelsea; Didier Drogba of Chelsea; Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush from 1986 and 1989.
Legends from the past and present: (Foreground from left) Mohamed Salah of Liverpool; Mason Mount celebrates scoring for Chelsea; Didier Drogba of Chelsea. (Background) Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush from 1986 and 1989. Composite: The FA/Getty Images/Shutterstock/Guardian

Ah, the Cup final. All that pomp and ceremony, the classic rites, the time-honoured rituals. The tingle of anticipation as we approach the sacred 4.45pm kick-off. A bespoke set from the world-famous house DJ Pete Tong in the buildup. Banners and placards honouring the competition’s airline sponsor. The traditional taking of the knee. And then, after a peep of Craig Pawson’s whistle, a football match played almost entirely without conventional strikers.

One of the greatest misconceptions about the FA Cup over the years is that it has failed to move with the times. In fact, ever since the first final at the Kennington Oval 150 years ago people have been messing around with it, tweaking and tampering and trying new things. It was the first competition to use goal nets and experiment with numbers on shirts; the first to embrace VAR; the first to allow games on a Sunday. Third-place playoffs have come and gone. At its best the FA Cup is not simply a time capsule or historical re-enactment. It can show us who we are and where we’re going.

For Jürgen Klopp and his formidable Liverpool team, the FA Cup represents a sort of final frontier, a destination as well as a part of the wider journey. Winning the Cup on its own does not make a side great. Klopp, who has made no secret of his competitive priorities over the years, would doubtless argue that the success of his project does not hinge on winning a single 90-minute game of football in the aftermath of a Pete Tong set. But go back through the history of English football and very few of its great coaches did not conquer the competition at some stage. Brian Clough won league titles and European Cups but to his dying day the absence of a Cup final triumph remained one of his great regrets. If Klopp leaves England without an FA Cup winner’s medal, it will gnaw at him: not a lot but persistently and forever.

For the club as a whole Saturday’s game is a chance to reignite what has been a curiously casual relationship with the game’s oldest competition. Quick quiz: without looking it up or trying to count them manually, how many FA Cups have Liverpool won? Virtually every fan will know – instinctively, almost genetically – about the 19 league titles and the six European Cups. But seven FA Cups (one fewer than Tottenham)? It’s not a shameful record by any stretch of the imagination. But nor is it the sort of thing you put on the side of a bus.

The classic Liverpool sides made Wembley their garden. Ian Rush remains the record scorer in FA Cup final history. Bill Shankly ranked the 1965 win as his greatest achievement in management, ahead of the league championship a year earlier. The draining 1989 final against Everton, held weeks after the Hillsborough disaster, felt like a small moment of solace for a grieving city. For all this, and for all the Cardiff heroics of Michael Owen in 2001 and Steven Gerrard in 2006, Liverpool have not won the Cup at Wembley for 30 years. There will never be a better time to scratch that itch.

By contrast the FA Cup had filtered into Chelsea’s bloodstream long before a Russian oligarch with a five-day beard clapped eyes on them. Those seven wins between 1997 and 2018 – achieved under seven managers – feel somehow pivotal to the mythology of the modern Chelsea, the idea that there is no club in England better at lifting itself for the one-off occasion. This will be their 12th final in the last 26 editions and yet, should Liverpool prevail, they will become the first club ever to lose three in a row.

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp and Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel during the Carabao Cup final at Wembley in February 2021
Jürgen Klopp (left) and Thomas Tuchel will meet in another domestic final at Wembley after Liverpool’s penalty shootout win over Chelsea in the Carabao Cup in February. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

If it feels a touch perverse to question the killer instinct of Thomas Tuchel’s team, one that has won European and world club championships in the past 12 months, then consider, too, that Chelsea have now lost their past five Wembley finals in all competitions, including a bruising penalty shootout defeat by Liverpool in this season’s Carabao Cup.

A fifth season without a league title – or indeed, a top-two finish – will be their longest drought since the Ken Bates era. Still under government sanctions, and braced for another summer of disruption and transition, the FA Cup gives Chelsea a chance to anchor themselves in something real, the reassurance that they still are who they say they are.

The game itself promises to be a maelstrom. Go back a decade to the last time these clubs met in the final and what strikes you above all is the aura and heft of the two sets of forwards: Didier Drogba and Luis Suárez on the pitch, Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll on the bench. This was still an age when clubs looked upon their strikers as their totems, their talisman, their tone-setter.

Drogba scored what would turn out to be the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory. The much-maligned Carroll electrified the game’s later stages, cannoning a header off the crossbar that may – and in those benighted pre-goalline technology days, we would never know for sure – even have crossed the line.

This will feel like a different sort of game, a kind of free-form chaos, a swarm of hybrid attacking midfielders making runs from weird angles and trying to bend defences into unsustainable shapes. Two high lines will grapple fiercely for territorial supremacy. Put two defenders on Mo Salah and you simply create room for Sadio Mané to go where he wants. Cling tight to Mason Mount in an attempt to prevent him dictating attacks and you leave a space in behind that Kai Havertz will almost certainly find.

Nothing about this will feel staid or conventional or hidebound. Nothing about this will feel second-string or inessential. At times the FA Cup has seemed to be weighed down by its history, too anchored in nostalgia, too obsessed with the idea of some mythical golden age. But 150 years on from the Wanderers and the Royal Engineers, Liverpool and Chelsea will step out under brilliant Wembley skies: two teams defined by their past, playing football from the future, with their gaze fixed firmly and intently on the present.

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