Gone in 52 minutes -- that's how long it took for Liverpool to lose the FA Cup final to Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday. Of course, the Blues' goals didn't come as quickly as Roberto Di Matteo's famous strike inside the first minute of the 1997 FA Cup final against Middlesbrough, but Ramires' in the 11th and Didier Drogba's in the 52nd were enough to see their team to victory, 2-1.
The first half may as well have been sponsored by Red Bull, because you needed an energy drink to stay awake. It brought back memories of the battles between the two sides in the mid-2000s in the Champions League. Indeed, most of us had probably put those turgid times behind us until this.
The opening goal came after Juan Mata, awarded official Man of the Match honors, latched on to the ball in Chelsea's half and slipped it through to Ramires. The Brazilian midfielder, heroic for his goal against Barcelona in a Champions League semifinal, is starting to forge a real reputation for being another Blues player for the big occasion (along with Drogba), and his goal was proof, muscling past Jose Enrique and charging into the box, where he smashed the ball past Pepe Reina at the near post. Credit to Chelsea, but terrible defending for the Reds: Enrique was caught out, Daniel Agger couldn't get across in time and Reina -- himself admitting it's been an underwhelming season for him -- had his body shape all wrong as he was beaten on the short side.
Not much happened for the rest of the half. Liverpool failed to get service to Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard had to drift deeper to get the ball, and while Kenny Dalglish's side passed the ball, it didn't go anywhere with it, perfectly suiting a Chelsea side that has shown it can grind out the results under Di Matteo.
Chelsea appeared to execute the death blow in the 52nd minute. It was an "Old Boys" goal. First, John Terry came racing out from the back to intercept a ball intended for Craig Bellamy at the halfway line, and the captain's delightful touch found teammate John-Obi Mikel. After a few passes, Frank Lampard -- who helped shut down the midfield with wily defending and positioning in the first half -- slotted a sweet pass to Drogba, who was positioned between Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson. The big Drog turned and fired between Skrtel's legs to the far post, thus becoming the first player to score in four FA Cup finals.
"I love the FA Cup," Drogba said. "A fourth win in eight seasons. It's fantastic for the club."
In the stands, the devastated look on Liverpool legend Ian Rush's face said it all.
Carroll changes the game
A minute later, Dalglish substituted Jay Spearing -- decent first half, dreadful second, including losing Lampard on the winning-goal sequence -- for Andy Carroll, and with the ex-Newcastle striker partnering Suarez up top, the Reds finally came alive. It was a microcosm of the team's season: underachieving in the first half, then showing signs of life for the final 30 minutes.
Carroll was a real beast, winning headers, bringing down balls, holding up play -- everything Fenway Sports thought it was getting when it purchased him for all those millions of pounds. He was also responsible for scoring Liverpool's only goal, in the 64th minute. Suarez raced down the left and tried to pick out Stewart Downing. In an attempt to make a tackle, Jose Bosingwa kicked the ball, which deflected off Downing to fall to the feet of Carroll in the box. He tip-toed to the right before getting the ball on his favored left foot and smashed a shot past Terry into the top of the net.
From there, Liverpool was on the front foot while Chelsea -- showing clear signs of attrition for a club that has been battling on three fronts -- lost its shape, energy and endeavor.
What will be debated for seasons to come is what happened in the 80th minute. Suarez hit a finesse chip to find Carroll open on the far post. His header appeared to cross the line before Petr Cech cleared the danger, palming the ball into the inside of the crossbar before seeing the danger away. The linesman adjudged the ball not to have fully crossed the line; most replays suggest the call was correct, but nothing was conclusive. Cech knows that all too well. "I had a lot of luck," he said after the match.
Bad luck for Liverpool, but amazing reflexes by the veteran Cech. Somehow, Chelsea regrouped. Drogba did his usual feigning of injuries -- including a comical falling to the pitch when going in for a challenge against Jordan Henderson. Really, the big guy, who is brilliant at holding the ball up, could be felled reading a menu in a restaurant.
In the end, it is Chelsea's sixth FA Cup win since Di Matteo scored that stunning 1997 goal, and fourth in six seasons. (And seven for Ashley Cole, if you keep track of that sort of thing.)
Kings of England
The doomsday scenario for Chelsea, of course, was quite clear: Lose this match against Liverpool, then fail against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. Without much chance of finishing fourth, the Blues would end this season trophy-less and start the next one without top-flight European football. Now, though, they've bagged a title and head into Munich riding high on confidence.
With fourth place all but a distant hope, Chelsea knows May 19 will remain an all-or-nothing match if it wants to stay in the Champions League -- a match in which it will be without two key players in Terry and Ramires, along with Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanovic.
Questions, questions, and more questions
The match will also serve to raise more questions than answers at this point.
Should Di Matteo, the interim manager, stay on in a full-time capacity? Does he still need to win the Champions League? The players clearly love him -- he's one of the guys, and genuflects to them, which is a key component to what is now a very symbiotic relationship. But is he the man to rebuild this squad? Talking about the "aging" Chelsea players seems a bit silly at the moment; the much publicized problems still exist, but right now, there is no mistaking that Chelsea is cobbling together what could be an incredibly special, if bizarre season.
Another question: Is Dalglish the best manager for Liverpool, or has his magic runs its course? Given the way he was changing systems (three, by the looks, just in the first half) and failed to find the side's mojo until it was too late, Reds fans may be thinking it's time for King Kenny to get a "promotion" upstairs and bring in a manager with a bit more tactical acumen.
Was Liverpool's season a success? Only if you consider the league cup the measure of quality, while languishing in the league -- especially since after the new year. On the other hand, Carroll has in the past few matches raised hopes of his own that he may be the man to lead the line next season, while Suarez continues to be a bit of an enigma. As for Downing, Henderson and Charlie Adam, well ...
We'll have to wait to see how it all shakes out. For now, Chelsea could end up proving virtually all of us wrong by ending this 2011-12 season as the most successful club in England. Winning the FA Cup and the Champions League would trump winning just the Premier League.
Oh, and this just in: Somewhere, Andre Villas-Boas is fitting himself for a straitjacket.