Ah, the Cup final. All that pomp and ceremony, the classic rites, the age-old rituals. The thrill of anticipation as the sacred 4.45pm kickoff approaches. A bespoke set from famed house DJ Pete Tong in the works. Banners and signs honoring the contest sponsoring airline. The traditional knee grip. And then, after a Craig Pawson whistle, a game of football played almost entirely without conventional forwards.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the FA Cup over the years is that it hasn’t evolved with the times. In fact, since the first final at the Kennington Oval 150 years ago, people have been having fun with it, tweaking, altering and trying new things. It was the first competition to use goal nets and experiment with numbers on shirts; the first to adopt VAR; the first to allow matches on Sundays. The playoffs for third place are over. At best, the FA Cup is not simply a time capsule or a historical re-enactment. He can show us who we are and where we are going.
For Jürgen Klopp and his formidable Liverpool side, the FA Cup represents a sort of final frontier, a destination as well as part of the wider journey. Winning the Cup alone does not make a team great. Klopp, who has made no secret of his competitive priorities over the years, would no doubt argue that the success of his project does not depend on winning a single 90-minute football match following a set of Pete Tong. But go back in English football history and very few of its great managers have not conquered the competition at some point. Brian Clough won league titles and European Cups, but until his dying day, the lack of a Cup final triumph remained one of his great regrets. If Klopp leaves England without an FA Cup winner’s medal, it will eat away at him: not much but persistently and forever.
For the club as a whole, Saturday’s game is a chance to rekindle what has been a curiously relaxed relationship with the game’s oldest competition. Quick quiz: without searching or trying to manually count them, how many FA Cups Liverpool have won? Virtually every fan knows – instinctively, almost genetically – the 19 league titles and six European Cups. But seven FA Cups (one less than Tottenham)? It’s not a disgraceful record by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s also not the kind of thing you put on the side of a bus.
Classic Liverpool teams have made Wembley their backyard. Ian Rush remains the all-time top scorer in the FA Cup final. Bill Shankly ranked the 1965 victory as his greatest managerial achievement, ahead of the league championship a year earlier. The grueling 1989 final against Everton, held weeks after the Hillsborough disaster, was felt as a small moment of solace for a grieving city. For all this, and for all the Cardiffian exploits 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 seeped into Chelsea’s blood long before a Russian oligarch with a five-day beard looked on them. Those seven wins between 1997 and 2018 – won under seven managers – somehow seem central to the modern Chelsea mythology, the idea that there is no club in England better to lift for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will be their 12th final in the last 26 editions and yet if Liverpool win they will become the first club to lose three in a row.
If it’s a little perverse to question the killer instincts of Thomas Tuchel’s side, who have won European and Club World Championships in the last 12 months, then also consider that Chelsea have now lost their last five Wembley finals in all competitions, including a bruising penalty shoot-out loss to Liverpool in this season’s Carabao Cup.
A fifth season without a league title — or even a top two — will be their longest drought since the Ken Bates era. Still under government sanctions and primed for another summer of disruption and transition, the FA Cup gives Chelsea a chance to anchor themselves in something real, reassurance that they are still who they say they are.
The game itself promises to be a maelstrom. Go back ten years to the last time these clubs met in the final and what strikes above all is the aura and the weight of the two groups of attackers: Didier Drogba and Luis Suárez on the pitch, Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll on the bench. It was still a time when clubs considered their attackers as their totems, their talisman, their tone setter.
Drogba scored what turned out to be the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory. The much-maligned Carroll electrified the latter stages of the game, firing a header off the crossbar that might – and in these murky days of pre-goal-line technology, we’d never know for sure – had even crossed the line.
It will feel like a different type of game, a kind of free-form mayhem, a swarm of hybrid attacking midfielders racing at odd angles and trying to bend defenses into unsustainable shapes. Two high lines will fight fiercely for territorial supremacy. Put two defenders on Mo Salah and you just create room for Sadio Mané to go where he wants. Hold on tight to Mason Mount in an attempt to keep him from dictating attacks and you leave space behind that Kai Havertz will almost certainly find.
Nothing about it will seem stuffy, conventional or narrow-minded. Nothing about it will seem secondary or inessential. The FA Cup has sometimes seemed weighed down by its history, too steeped in nostalgia, too obsessed with the idea of a mythical golden age. But 150 years after Wanderers and Royal Engineers, Liverpool and Chelsea will step out under the bright skies of Wembley: two teams defined by their past, playing the football of the future, with their eyes firmly and intently fixed on the present.