FA Cup

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Cup final to help render lost campaigns

Roberto Di Matteo
Roberto Di Matteo has transformed Chelsea since taking over as club manager.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

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As Liverpool and Chelsea prepare to dispute the FA Cup final on Saturday afternoon, a strong a debate is raging about whether their respective seasons can be defined as successes or failures. There was a time when leading a team out at Wembley was enough of an answer in itself.

But the weights and measures have changed. League position, above all finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League because of its commercial implications, assumed a greater value to clubs than making a priority of playing in what was once the most prestigious fixture in the English football calendar.

Liverpool are eighth in the table and haven’t finished there since the 1993-1994 campaign. Their record at home is the worst in 63 years. Yet, they have still won the Carling Cup, and have a chance to add luster to that underappreciated trophy by hoisting the FA Cup for the eighth time in their illustrious history.

Meanwhile, Chelsea are sixth. They haven’t finished outside the top four in a decade, let alone under billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. They are through to their fourth FA Cup final in six years. Should they win it, Chelsea could then do a quite incredible ‘double’ too by triumphing over Bayern Munich to lift their first ever Champions League crown.

Glory is still to be had for both clubs. Depending on who prevails, it would be hard to deny them the claim to a fine campaign in spite of their league positions. While a Carling Cup and an FA Cup still might not rank among Liverpool’s greatest ever campaign hauls, and if everything goes to plan for Chelsea and they win the remaining competitions in which they’re participating, it would be hard to dispute that this was anything other than their best on record.

Both of their seasons have been memorably paradoxical: poor in the league but good in the cups — perhaps because they’ve been seeking redemption. To some extent, there’s a scratching of heads as to how Liverpool and Chelsea have done it considering the circumstances in which they have found themselves at various stages this season. But that shouldn’t in any way detract from their accomplishments. All that counts is that they’re there contesting another final and have made the best out of an otherwise poor campaign. Nothing else matters. Football in its essence is about trophies. That’s principally what fans want.

CENTER STAGE

Check out the players that can impact the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.

“There is an obsession with the Premier League simply because of what it holds for every club and the value financially for every club, the rewards you get for finishing in the top four and getting in the Champions League,” explained Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish. “But there is a satisfaction from winning a cup competition which you don’t get from finishing fifth or sixth in the league.”

Saturday’s game promises much, even if four of the last five finals have been tight and cagey affairs ending in a 1-0 victory. Not a great deal should be read into the results leading up to the match itself. Liverpool lost 1-0 at home to Fulham, while Chelsea suffered a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle helpless in the face of Papiss Demba Cissé’s two entries for ‘Goal of the Season.’

In mitigation, both managers chose to rest several players expected to feature in their starting XIs come the weekend. It’s perhaps better to look at the previous encounters between these two teams this season to discover which club has a true edge.

To give Dalglish credit, he has managed to get his side to rise to the big occasions. On top of beating Arsenal in the Premier League and knocking Manchester United and rivals Everton out of the FA Cup, they have twice been victorious away at Chelsea this season..

Of course things have changed a bit since then. Chelsea have a different manager in Roberto Di Matteo, who has fond memories of the old Wembley, where he scored the quickest goal in Cup final history in a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough in 1997. He got himself another winners’ medal with the club in 2000, and will be hoping to receive his first as a manager.

Beyond all expectations, the Swiss-Italian has somehow turned things around at Chelsea. Unlike the regime uunder André Villas-Boas Chelsea’s not trying to be something they’re not and are back playing to their strengths.

Eliminating Barcelona, arguably the best team of all-time, in the Champions League semifinals will give the team the confidence that they can beat anyone. Considering they are banned for the Champions League final later this month, players like John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles will also presumably be extra motivated ahead of the FA Cup final

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of all ahead of Saturday, aside from the rivalry that developed between the clubs in the Champions League during the José Mourinho and Rafael Benitez eras, is the prospect of Chelsea striker Fernando Torres facing his former club and the comparison between him and his replacement at Liverpool, Andy Carroll.

Providing they both play, which might not happen given Di Matteo’s preference to start with Didier Drogba, the stage is set for both of them to prove that they’ve been worth the large investments. Torres may be entitled to feel he has already showed as much by scoring that famous goal at the Camp Nou that booked Chelsea’s place in the Champions League final. But some still need persuading that he is on the way back to his best.

Torres and Carroll offer a kind of microcosm of Chelsea and Liverpool’s last 18 months: there’s that uncertainty in considering them to either be a success or a failure. Saturday’s FA Cup final will be the latest exhibit towards forming a definitive judgment.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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