It was supposed to be a day of redemption.
Enhanced by the long-awaited return of fans, Chelsea had the chance to win their ninth FA Cup on Saturday, against a Leicester City side who had never previously won the trophy.
The Blues could set the record straight from 2020, where they were beaten finalists by bitter rivals Arsenal. It was also a chance to get one back against Leicester, whose 2-0 league win in January was the final straw for then-manager Frank Lampard.
Yet by the end of the evening, redemption had turned to regret.
A flat first half did not see a single attempt on target for Chelsea, despite their joint-top scorer in Timo Werner leading the line at Wembley. It proved to be a day to forget for Werner, who could not muster a single shot on target before his late substitution.
Chelsea’s lack of cutting edge was shining through, an unfortunate recurring factor that has persisted since the early Lampard days and into the Thomas Tuchel era.
As Chelsea could not take their chances, Leicester had just one attempt on target and took it.
Youri Tielemans’ screamer was worthy of winning any cup final, flying into the top corner past the hapless Kepa Arrizabalaga. For all the unjust blame for the goalkeeper and criticism of the midfield’s marking, it was a stunning finish to put the Foxes in front, proving decisive in the course of the game.
From that moment on, Chelsea lost all direction.
The Blues were submissive in midfield and despairing in attack, failing to break through Leicester’s perfectly executed low block. They could not find a way back into the game, and even when they did come close, they were denied by Kasper Schmeichel’s heroics and a cruel yet correct VAR decision.
Leicester were just as much deserved winners as Chelsea were justified losers, becoming the first team since Newcastle in 1999 to lose back-to-back FA Cup Finals.
What would have been a ninth victory turned into a seventh final defeat, the joint-third most in cup final history. The defeat was painful, but the manner of it was even worse.
Chelsea simply did not perform, failing to leave their mark on Wembley and deservedly being edged out by a Leicester side who were hungrier and more disciplined than their London counterparts.
Eight final defeats in their last 11 attempts tells the story of the Blues’ mentality in finals, continuously lacking that final ounce of brilliance to secure silverware. It is not surprising that, since John Terry’s departure in 2017, only a quarter of Chelsea’s finals appearances have ended in success. Where has the spirited spine of the Old Guard gone?
Last year, nothing went right for Chelsea. It was the same story in 2021, but this time, there is far more blame on the manager and the players.
Tuchel’s bizarre decision to leave Tammy Abraham, the Blues’ joint-top scorer and leading FA Cup goalscorer this season, out of the squad was the first blow. Opting for Jorginho was risky following his midweek mistake against Arsenal, while the triple introduction of Olivier Giroud, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi came far too late in the game.
Of all the players who had the honour of representing Chelsea in the biggest game in English football, only three could leave with their heads held high.
N’Golo Kanté was a driving force and engine in midfield, Reece James had the most accurate passes from wing-back, and Callum Hudson-Odoi gave Tuchel a glimmer of hope late on. It is surely no coincidence, that two of those came through from the academy.
For all of Chelsea’s failures under the arch, they were the architects of their own downfall.
They did not take their chances, they did not fight for the win, they did not seize control of the final. Chelsea only have themselves to blame for losing yet another final, and even if it just was not their day in north-west London, it rarely seems to be.
Nevertheless, Chelsea must pick themselves up.
The opportunity for instant redemption is just around the corner, when the Blues welcome Leicester to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday for a crucial Premier League clash.
Sunday marks the conclusion of the domestic season with a trip to Aston Villa, where Tuchel’s men will hope to have the top four wrapped up by then.
But it all comes down to the season finale and a final shot at silverware for the campaign, when Chelsea take on Manchester City in the Champions League Final. If they play in Porto like they did at Wembley, they stand no chance.
Yet, if we have learnt anything about Chelsea from their European endeavours, it is to never doubt the underdogs.
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