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Liverpool continue to make heroes during a never-to-be-forgotten season, to accumulate silverware, to hint at something historic. On this occasion, it was the back-up left-back, Kostas Tsimikas, who made the difference, proving that even the more unheralded members of Jürgen Klopp’s squad can be counted on.
Introduced as a substitute in the closing stages of extra time, the Greece international, who joined from Olympiakos in the summer of 2020 for £11.7m, stepped up to take Liverpool’s seventh penalty of the shootout. It was the kick which won the FA Cup.
Liverpool had been in the same situation at the end of round five. César Azpilicueta had hit the post for Chelsea with the first kick of the second round and Sadio Mané made the mission to the spot, intending to complete phase two of Operation Quadruple.
Mané seemed to be taking his time over the walk, savouring it. He had scored the decisive penalty for Senegal in their victories in the Africa Cup of Nations final and the World Cup playoff. Everybody knew that he was going to score. But he did not, his Senegal teammate Edouard Mendy going the right way to save.
It was a moment of the purest drama. Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, beat the turf in delirium. It was back on for his team; the opportunity to end a traumatic season on a high. And then it was snatched away again after Alisson read Mason Mount’s intentions to make an outstanding save to his left.
Enter Tsimikas. What a moment for the 26-year-old. And he made it a defining one for his career with the coolest of finishes. The Liverpool half of the stadium exploded, red flares lighting the scene, and Klopp could celebrate the addition of the FA Cup to his CV.
Klopp wants more. The Premier League feels like a big ask, with his team trailing Manchester City by three points with two games to play – and an inferior goal difference. Then there is the small matter of the Champions League final against Real Madrid on 28 May.
There was a scare here when Mohamed Salah was forced off with an injury in the 32nd minute but it was not a time to dwell on that, rather for the club to enjoy a first FA Cup since the Steven Gerrard-inspired victory over West Ham in 2006, which was also won on penalties.
Is there a team that has shown greater composure in shootouts over the years than Liverpool? Their first trophy of this season had been won on penalties – the Carabao Cup against Chelsea – and there were parallels to that day, particularly in how both teams failed to take their chances during a stalemate.
It was not as open as the previous instalment, the legs heavy after a long season. For Chelsea, there has been the emotional drain of the impending takeover; for Liverpool, the remorselessness of a schedule that could bring the ultimate glory. But there were still plenty of opportunities.
The tension rose steadily and Liverpool thought they had cracked through it not once but twice in a whirlwind 60 seconds from the 83rd minute. Instead, they twice struck the post. First, the excellent Luis Díaz shot against the outside of the right-hand upright and then Andy Robertson, arriving to meet a cross from the substitute James Milner, crashed against the other one.
Chelsea had craved what Tuchel called an “injection of positivity” from this showpiece and they almost got it in normal time, before the slow and inevitable trudge towards penalties. There were big chances for Christian Pulisic and Marcos Alonso in the first half and Alonso again straight after the interval. The left wing-back would also rattle the crossbar with a 48th-minute free-kick from a tight angle.
Tuchel pulled the same move that he had done in the Carabao Cup, introducing a player specifically for the shootout in the 119th minute. Back then, it had been the goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, and we all remember how that worked out. This time, it was Ross Barkley for a nonplussed Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who had come on himself as a substitute. Barkley did not touch the ball before the final whistle, meaning that his only touch was when he stepped up in round four. He lashed past Alisson.
Mendy would get his fingertips to the penalties of Milner and Roberto Firmino, albeit in vain, and Chelsea’s players crumpled to the turf when it was all over. It was their third FA Cup final in succession and their third defeat, an unwanted new record. Revenge for the Carabao Cup was on their minds. They did not get it.
Liverpool had laid down the early markers, with Días worrying Trevoh Chalobah with his pace. He almost picked out Thiago with a cross and then missed a one-on-one after a wonderful Trent Alexander-Arnold through-ball. Credit Mendy with a big block.
Chelsea battled back after a tough opening 20 minutes. Pulisic dragged wide and then played in Alonso, whose first touch let him down. Romelu Lukaku also shot high. Tuchel’s team had a flurry of chances at the start of the second half, with Alonso shooting past the far post before his free-kick effort and Pulisic extending Alisson.
Diogo Jota, who came on for Salah, blew two good chances while the ball would not go in for Días. But Liverpool found a way.