Saturday 20 January 2018

FA Cup final: No silver lining for Dalglish

Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1
Liverpool's bleak season ends on an appropriate note, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

By the time Steven Gerrard walked up to collect his losers' medal at Wembley last night, most of Liverpool's supporters had left Wembley, beginning the long journey home.

The empty spaces in one half of the stadium captured the desolation of the season. Liverpool was a club built on the vow that second was nowhere, mainly because Liverpool was the club that came first.

A Carling Cup victory was not the reward they expected for the investment last summer. Yesterday was Liverpool's cup final; Chelsea's real shot at history comes in a fortnight against Bayern Munich. Liverpool knew that victory would define their season, or at least allow them to have a say in how it's written.

In the end, they could claim heroic defeat and a sense of injustice, with different angles showing a different end result from Andy Carroll's header.

But there was nothing to complain about. Carroll played with the ferocious energy of those who have nothing to lose when he was introduced in the second half, but Chelsea performed when it mattered. Juan Mata was the creative hub of everything that happened, but Didier Drogba and John Terry provided foundations. "He's not 65," Di Matteo said when asked if Drogba had more to offer. Liverpool pined for this wisdom.

They had a tactical plan which let them down and ended up exposing their weakest player, Jay Spearing. Steven Gerrard failed to provide any intelligence, which is his normal starting point in the biggest games, especially when asked to play in a midfield role.

Kenny Dalglish made no attempt to deflect attention from the club's failures afterwards, but he also seemed bewildered by his own side's performance. "I hope the way we finished makes some of them realise they're better than they think they are," he said, an admission that there has been a mental failure in this side which has caused so much inconsistency.

Dalglish blamed this on their youth, but with Luis Suarez isolated for the first half and Gerrard poor, the failing spread beyond the young players, the hapless Spearing and the callow Jordan Henderson. Stewart Downing is 27. The owners FSG have concluded that there was too much expectation in stating that their goal was Champions League football at the beginning of the season. But that was said with the hindsight which only comes through watching expensively signed players fail to deliver.

Downing gave a 90-minute guide to his season yesterday. Like so many, he improved in garbage time, but for an hour he looked overawed. The pressure will be even greater next season. Chelsea deserved to win. It was a victory for unity and a common purpose, qualities that had been lacking before Di Matteo took over and which may yet win them the European Cup. There appears to be a greater inevitability to him becoming permanent manager at Chelsea.

The game began with neither side wanting to make a mistake. Then, for Chelsea's first goal, Liverpool made three of them. Spearing gave the ball away, Luis Enrique questioned his own positioning as Ramires ran past him and when he shot, Pepe Reina failed with a simple save.

The opening goal was handed to Chelsea. They then sat back and invited Liverpool to pick out the devastating pass to Suarez, but he was too far away. Liverpool's midfield were unwilling and unable to support him or anybody else for that matter. Chelsea had the most comfortable lead they could have hoped for during a first half of few chances.

Liverpool needed to change things: any half in which Salomon Kalou is a threat demands a rethink. They had more urgency in the second half, even if Downing stayed on the field. Yet by pushing Craig Bellamy up front alongside Suarez, they left their hollow, clueless midfield even more exposed.

Gerrard had burst forward once before Chelsea played around them. Frank Lampard got away from Spearing and knocked the ball into Drogba, who was given too much time to control and finish. Chelsea began to play with assurance, swarming forward while Liverpool looked for guidance. Carroll was the man Dalglish turned to and when he scored, the game changed.

Chelsea looked like a team with a hectic schedule. Liverpool had been waiting for this game for weeks and they suddenly remembered that. For half an hour they played and when they are praised for this, it must be remembered that it was a fine performance in comparison to their abject first hour.

Carroll provided the whirling energy, taking one goal brilliantly, even if Chelsea stood off him for an age, and then he appeared to equalise with a powerful header. Replays fuelled the debate but if Dirk Kuyt could have put in the rebound the questions would have been irrelevant. Again, it was a moment that captured their season of controversy, debate and outrage. Even in the cup final, Liverpool were demonstrating that the league remains the truest test of a team and it is a test they have spectacularly failed.

Chelsea celebrated in the end and the crowd hailed Di Matteo, who has made a case only a few would argue against for his permanent appointment. Chelsea found stability after the most chaotic of seasons and there could be even more to come.

Liverpool were trying to make sense of their chaos. The final was a fitting end to their season -- it summed up the things they have done and, more critically, all that they failed to do.

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