Liverpool's win over Chelsea was a true reflection of English football
MARTIN SAMUEL: Liverpool’s penalty shootout win over Chelsea at Wembley was a true reflection of English football right now… the margins have NEVER been tighter in the battle for trophies
- Liverpool beat Chelsea in their second penalty shootout final on Saturday
- The Reds have faced the Blues four times this term without a winner in open play
- Jurgen Klopp’s side remain four points of Manchester City in the Premier League
- Liverpool still have a chance to complete the historic quadruple this season
The smallest margins. That is what elite sport has always been about. The catch put down, the chance missed, the try scorer’s boot brushing the white line.
Yet these are also moments, cameos, in matches. What we are seeing in English football right now is titles, destinies, decided by minutiae over seasons, over entire campaigns. Chelsea and Liverpool have played each other in two finals this year, and in four matches overall. They cannot be separated. Not in open play.
In 420 minutes of football — seven hours, not including stoppage time, which probably adds another 20 minutes at least — there has been no winner. Yet Liverpool have two domestic trophies to show from those games, and Chelsea none. And in the league, Liverpool have a 16-point advantage.
Liverpool have emerged victorious from two penalty shootouts in cup finals against Chelsea
Above them sit Manchester City. Liverpool have lost two games this season; one at West Ham in November, the other at Leicester the following month. Yet they trail City by four points. It will still be very hard for them to win the league from here. And they’ve lost twice across 36 fixtures.
One more than was lost to come second in 2018-19. That, admittedly, was a defeat by Manchester City who pipped them to the title by a point but, increasingly, we are looking at standards higher than ever before. And former players are insulted by that notion, as if we are saying football was rubbish in their day. It wasn’t. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are walking in the footsteps of many great players and teams in vivid red shirts.
Chelsea (3-4-2-1): Mendy 7.5; Chalobah 6.5 (Azpilicueta 105min, 5.5), Silva 8, Rudiger 7; James 6.5, Jorginho 7.5, Kovacic 6 (Kante 66, 7), Alonso 7; Mount 6.5, Pulisic 6 (Loftus-Cheek 105, 5; Barkley 120); Lukaku 6 (Ziyech 85, 5.5).
Manager: Thomas Tuchel 7.5.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson 7; Alexander-Arnold 6.5; Konate 7, Van Dijk 7 (Matip 90, 6.5), Robertson 6.5 (Tsimikas 111, 6); Henderson 7.5, Thiago 7, Keita 6.5 (Milner 74 6); Salah 6 (Jota 33, 6.5), Mane 6, Diaz 8.5 (Firmino 98, 5.5).
Manager: Jurgen Klopp 8.
Referee: Craig Pawson 8.
It is just that the modern game, with its enormous riches bequeathed by UEFA, has created a group of clubs who rarely lose. So when they meet, when they compete, the demands are so much greater, the margins between them so small.
Klopp spoke of being able to introduce Diogo Jota and Joel Matip from the bench on Saturday. ‘This is the best situation I have ever been in as a coach,’ he said.
Yet equally Chelsea — vanquished Chelsea — could bring on N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta, and would have had access to Kai Havertz and Timo Werner had they not been so recently injured.
When Derby County won the league in 1974-75 they lost 10 games — almost a quarter of their matches, 23.8 per cent. Across the last 10 seasons, the champions lose, on average, four, so 10.5 per cent.
And win rates are through the roof. Derby won 21 of their 42 matches to be champions: precisely half. They only won seven times in 21 games away from home. In the current league table, Aston Villa have seven away wins, and they’re 13th. The average number of wins for first place across the last five years has been 30.6. The typical champion wins over 80 per cent of its matches.
So where is the 2022 FA Cup in all of this? It’s in there. The degree of separation between Liverpool and Chelsea in two finals this season — a missed penalty in 22, taken by a goalkeeper in the Carabao Cup, three missed penalties in 14, with Chelsea failing by two to Liverpool’s one in the FA Cup final — is a true reflection of English football now. We talk of clubs being streets ahead but, actually, when they meet that is rarely the case.
Mason Mount’s (left) spotkick in the FA Cup final was the third missed between the two sides
‘Chelsea — what a performance, what a team!’ exclaimed Klopp, and he wasn’t just saying it to make the achievements of his own players appear better.
Chelsea were dreadful in the opening 20 minutes, yet still carved out the two best opportunities in that period. Then they were the better team for about 40 minutes, then Liverpool regained control. Liverpool are better than Chelsea; the league table tells us that. Yet Klopp was speaking the truth.
There are four trophies to be won every season, six if an English team has won the Champions League. So this is a six-trophy season and Chelsea have won two of them, the UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup. They remain the world champions.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp hailed his opponents’ performance after the final showdown
So Thomas Tuchel was rightly put out when an interviewer started asking him about his ‘trophyless’ season. ‘You may forget them because it was a little while ago,’ he shot back. ‘But I don’t.’
And, no, it isn’t a history-making quadruple which Liverpool continue to contest. But Liverpool didn’t beat some scrappy bunch of underdogs at Wembley . They beat the world champions and, until May 29, the reigning European champions, too. Klopp knew he had been in a fight.
He sat in his corny celebration T-shirt, medal draped around his neck. Not many managers do that, put the medal on show. ‘Before it happens you don’t know how big a deal it is,’ he said of his first FA Cup final win. ‘Right now, it feels massive, really massive. There is a lot to come, a lot to play for — but this is really special.’
Blues boss Thomas Tuchel was quick to point out his side have not had a ‘trophy-less season’
Indeed, it was. As anyone who has followed the national team will know, it takes a particular mental resolve to win the big penalty shootouts, and Liverpool have gone to Wembley and scored 17 of their last 18 from the spot under enormous pressure. Klopp nobly blamed himself for giving the only failure, Sadio Mane, bad advice.
And that strength is the mark of a great team. For a start, nobody gets to be in penalty shootouts at Wembley without winning matches to get there — just as nobody competes for supposedly inferior honours like the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup without winning the greatest club prize of all.
Secondly, sudden death tests character. Not that the losers do not have any — that would be a terrible and false slight on Mason Mount and Azpilicueta — but any team that consistently triumphs in these moments possesses a collective mental strength.
Klopp said Sadio Mane’s penalty miss was his fault after he had told the player to change sides
Undoubtedly, this is what Liverpool display in so many important moments, which is why Klopp acknowledges it so often. Little more than an hour after the game, he was already thinking about Tuesday’s game at Southampton, already back to chasing down Manchester City. But he knows that challenge, and this, are one and the same.
‘It is all because of the character of these players,’ said Klopp. ‘It’s the only reason. I can say as much as I want, I can motivate as much as I want, but if these boys got soft or distracted or weak you would have no chance to compete with Manchester City in a league like this.
‘So far, in the second half of this season my boys drew against Chelsea, against City, against Tottenham and won all the other games. If it’s not enough, we have to go again next season.
Klopp claimed his players could not be soft if they want to compete with Manchester City
‘And if that isn’t enough, go again the season after that. And we didn’t even lose to City this year. We lost another game somewhere. But nobody thought we could compete against City after last year. And we did.’
For Tuchel, the short-term future is more uncertain. He met new owner Todd Boehly last week but admitted they spoke about baseball more than Chelsea. Sanctions have cost the club key players such as Antonio Rudiger, and Tuchel is yet to have the conversation that maps out transfer strategy.
‘It could be impossible to catch up with Liverpool this summer,’ he admitted. ‘We are losing key players, they are improving in every transfer window. It’s tough, but we came close.’
Indeed they did. Margins, the tiniest margins. Played out across a grand scale.
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