It took 22 penalties to separate Liverpool and Chelsea in February’s Carabao Cup final.
After an enthralling contest at Wembley ended goalless, Kepa Arrizabalaga, sent on as a substitute in the final minute of extra-time, fatefully skied the decisive spot-kick in the shootout.
Liverpool and Chelsea are now braced to meet again as they become the first two sides to contest both the League and FA Cup finals in the same season since Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday in 1992/93.
It is a thrilling prospect and recent history suggests it will be close.
Before their last Wembley meeting in February, there were pulsating draws in the Premier League, with Chelsea holding on for a 1-1 draw at Anfield after Reece James’s red card, then coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge.
Will the two sides go the distance again on Saturday?
Here, we look at where the 150th FA Cup final could be won and lost as Liverpool bid to claim their second trophy of the season and Chelsea aim to end their lingering hopes of winning a quadruple.
Does Diaz hold the key for Liverpool?
Liverpool have plenty of weapons with which they can hurt Chelsea. Sadio Mane comes into the game having scored eight goals in his last 11 appearances. Mohamed Salah is Mohamed Salah.
But Luis Diaz might just be the man who gives them the edge on Saturday.
The £49m January signing used the Carabao Cup final to fully introduce himself as a Liverpool player, tormenting Chelsea on the left flank on what was only his fourth start for the club.
“He was fantastic,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher after the game. “I think Virgil van Dijk got the man-of-the-match award but I think Diaz was Liverpool’s best player.”
The statistics backed him up. Diaz ranked top in terms of shots on target, touches in the opposition box, dribbles and fouls won before he was withdrawn in the first half of extra-time and Liverpool’s attacking threat went with him.
Carragher went on to say Diaz would make a “huge difference” to Liverpool’s season and so it has proved.
The 25-year-old was instrumental in ensuring they came from behind to win their Champions League semi-final against Villarreal and he has shone in the Premier League too, giving Klopp’s already formidable attack another dimension.
Chelsea will need to pay him close attention at Wembley.
Havertz or Lukaku for Chelsea?
Romelu Lukaku has given Thomas Tuchel a tricky decision to make up front.
The Belgian has been out of favour for much of the season but scored twice on only his second Premier League start since February against Wolves on Saturday and followed that up with another goal in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Leeds.
Lukaku appears to have rediscovered his confidence in front of goal after a torrid season and his recent improvement puts him in contention to lead the line against Liverpool at Wembley.
Tuchel’s alternative is to restore Kai Havertz in a false nine role. The 22-year-old has not featured in Chelsea’s last two fixtures but he has until now been Chelsea’s go-to man in the big games.
Havertz does not offer the same goalscoring pedigree as Lukaku and has failed to find the net in his last seven appearances but his movement and off-the-ball work are deemed superior to his team-mate’s.
Those qualities shone through in the Carabao Cup final, when he created numerous opportunities for his team-mates and also had two goals disallowed.
It’s down to Tuchel to decide whether to restore him to the team on that basis, or whether to opt for the £90m man in form.
“We can also play both, although they lacked a bit of the feeling of being a perfect fit together,” he said in his press conference.
“It’s very likely that it is one of the two but we will not give the line-up today. Listen, Romelu played lately and scored lately. He did everything to stay on the pitch.
“Will be our final call in the morning.”
Kovacic could be key as Fabinho misses out
Both sides face uncertainty in midfield, with Liverpool set to be without Fabinho after he picked up a hamstring problem against Aston Villa on Tuesday and Chelsea sweating on the fitness of Mateo Kovacic after he hurt his ankle against Leeds.
Fabinho’s injury has garnered more attention, such is his importance to Jurgen Klopp’s side, but Liverpool boast a strong record in games without the Brazilian this season.
In fact, the Reds are undefeated in 19 fixtures in which Fabinho hasn’t started, emerging victorious in 15 of them and giving them a win rate of 79 per cent, which is actually higher than their win rate of 73 per cent in the games he has started.
Liverpool team news
Fabinho has been ruled out of Liverpool’s final three matches of the domestic season with a hamstring injury.
Captain Jordan Henderson will come in and fill the holding role with Thiago Alcantara also likely to return to the starting line-up after being rested for the midweek win over Aston Villa.
Mohamed Salah, a substitute at Villa Park, is set to start up front alongside Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz with left-back Andy Robertson expected to return after being given Tuesday off.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have struggled when Kovacic has not been available, winning just 14 of the 28 games he has not started this season at a rate of 50 per cent, compared to 21 of the 32 games he has started at a rate of 66 per cent.
The numbers underline Kovacic’s value to Tuchel’s side and the Chelsea manager was delighted to report he is in contention to face Liverpool at his pre-match press conference despite previously appearing to rule him out.
Liverpool can call on Jordan Henderson to replace Fabinho. Klopp described his performance from the bench against Villa as “incredible”. But Kovacic’s presence could help Chelsea wrestle control of a key area of the pitch.
Chelsea team news
Mateo Kovacic will pull out all the stops to be fit for Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup final.
The Croatia midfielder hobbled out of Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Leeds with an ankle ligament problem.
N’Golo Kante is also battling to be fit after a series of niggles, though Callum Hudson-Odoi will miss out through ongoing back trouble and Ben Chilwell remains absent.
The Croatian has been one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers when available this season and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in January.
“He was excellent in the matches against Liverpool lately so we will try everything and see tomorrow,” said Tuchel, who also revealed he hopes to be able to call on N’Golo Kante following a three-game absence.”
Klopp: This is not a normal game
Klopp is determined to win his first FA Cup as the Reds aim to keep their quadruple bid alive but he is expecting another tightly-contested encounter against Chelsea.
“We didn’t ‘beat’ Chelsea, we won the penalty shootout, one of the craziest shootouts ever,” he said of February’s Carabao Cup final.
“We know in football without luck you have no chance and that night I think luck was more on our side during the shootout.
“It was a tough game. We know how good Chelsea are and we expect another tough one. Both teams will go with all they have, that’s what I expect from Chelsea and especially from us.
“What we realised from the Carabao Cup is how big an occasion Wembley is in this moment with all the people in. It felt outstanding and we want to have that again.”
He continued: “I’ve never won the FA Cup before and most of my players have never won it.
“We are really looking forward to this opportunity. The boys worked their socks off to arrive there with all the different challenges. It is a massive final for us and really happy to be a part of.
“It will never happen that we see the FA Cup final as a normal game. It’s a special game, for some of us the biggest in their career and we really want to enjoy that as well. We want to deliver it for our people.”
Tuchel out to avoid more FA Cup final woe
Tuchel is determined to avoid a repeat of Chelsea’s loss to Leicester last year and admits it is his job to change the club’s record of having lost three out of four FA Cup finals in the last five years.
“I can only say that last year was with me in the final against Leicester and we will try it again.
“First of all, it is a big achievement to be in these finals and there has to be unfortunately a loser.
“In these finals, there is a special energy, a special atmosphere.
“There is a special momentum you have to catch and for sure you need a piece of luck to go away with a trophy.
“We are aware of that. We feel again well prepared. The atmosphere is right. The momentum is okay after the reaction in Leeds.
“Everybody knows what we are up against. We want to arrive to give Liverpool a hard fight.
“I don’t know if there is one reason it is like this. I would prefer to point out the positives. A fifth cup final in six years, it shows the competitive spirit we have.”
Mane’s record against Chelsea – Opta stats
- With this match a repeat of the 2021/22 Carabao Cup final, Liverpool are looking to win both of England’s domestic cup competitions in the same season for the first time since 2000/01.
- Liverpool and Chelsea have met once before in the FA Cup final, doing so in 2012 which the Blues won 2-1 thanks to goals from Ramires and Didier Drogba.
- This will be the Blues’ 16th appearance in the competition’s final compared to the Reds’ 15th, the third and fourth most occasions of all sides behind Manchester United (20) and Arsenal (21).
- In Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, the FA Cup final will see two German managers go head-to-head for the very first time, with the one emerging victorious the first German boss to get their hands on the trophy.
- Sadio Mane has scored six goals against Chelsea since moving to Liverpool in 2016-17, with no other player netting more often against the Blues in this time.
Source : Sky Sports