FA Cup intrigue
Chelsea versus Liverpool feels like a proper FA Cup final
There are plenty of complaints about the unusual late kickoff time in London, but Saturday's tie between Liverpool and Chelsea at Wembley is otherwise exactly what traditionalists would want for a picture-book FA Cup final. Red versus blue, north versus south, two big sides and no odds-on favorite, which should mean a close match. If the weather can brighten up -- London has just seen its wettest April for 100 years -- this feels like a proper FA Cup final.
If Liverpool and Chelsea weren't in the FA Cup final this weekend, they would have been playing each other in the league. Strangely, it's the second year running that the final is being contested between two sides due to meet this weekend anyway (it was Manchester City and Stoke last year). Therefore, it's been a while since the sides have played each other, giving an air of intrigue to the match.
Liverpool has triumphed twice against Chelsea already this season: a 2-1 win in the league, followed by a 2-0 victory in the Carling Cup, both at Stamford Bridge. Those matches, however, were played when Andre Villas-Boas was in charge of Chelsea. This will be the first time Kenny Dalglish and Roberto Di Matteo have met, but Liverpool has an excellent record against Chelsea over the past couple of seasons, regardless of coaches, winning the past four meetings. That covers various managerial battles -- Dalglish against Villas-Boas, Dalglish against Carlo Ancelotti, and Roy Hodgson against Ancelotti. There is such variation between the strategies of each coach that there's no real template for this game; it's a step into the unknown for both.
Hodgson's victory against Chelsea was won with two excellent goals from Fernando Torres, probably the last time the Spaniard starred in a Liverpool shirt before his move south. His hat trick last weekend has increased his chances of starting Saturday, but over the course of Di Matteo's period in charge, Didier Drogba has been far superior to Torres, and deserves a start here. The Ivorian's record in cup finals is superb -- six goals in six games. He is unquestionably the man for the big occasion, and while Torres would love to prove a point against his former club, he looked nervous when coming on against Liverpool in November and would feel huge pressure in this match.
Tactically, Di Matteo's lineup is fairly predictable -- he'll stick to the 4-2-3-1 system he's favored throughout his domestic campaign (though a more cautious 4-3-3 was used against Barcelona, with all three central midfielders sitting deep in front of the defense). Chelsea's key man might be Ramires, who was superb in both games against Barcelona and will be determined to have an impact here -- he's suspended for the Champions League final, so this is his biggest game of the season. Players who can run the furthest often seem to be the heroes on cup final day.
As always, Liverpool's lineup is less certain. Dalglish has varied his side throughout the campaign, playing many systems, which has often made Liverpool's play confused and lacking structure. That's been more of a problem in the league, however, especially games in which Liverpool has been the side expected to make the running and dominate possession. As a result, it's been difficult to see what its natural style of play is. But in one-off games against good sides Dalglish has generally got things right, which partly explains Liverpool's good cup form.
Dalglish's key decision is whether to start Andy Carroll, and the striker's appearance was the only positive from the team's midweek defeat to Fulham. "It was nice to see the big lad back," Dalglish said. "He had a niggle at the weekend but he is fit and back and played 90 minutes, so that is good for us," the manager continued, hinting that Carroll will start. There are also questions about the midfield -- Jay Spearing will probably start alongside Steven Gerrard in an all-Scouse midfield duo, while Stewart Downing, Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt, Jordan Henderson and Maxi Rodriguez are all hoping to start on the flanks. At the back, Dalglish brought in Jamie Carragher for the semifinal win over Everton, but Carragher was involved in the mix-up for Nikica Jelavic's goal, so he might have to be content with a place on the bench.
This final means very different things for the two clubs. For Liverpool, the FA Cup has been the sole focus since the Carling Cup success against Cardiff City in February, with its league form disastrous since the turn of the year. Yet Chelsea has been forced to juggle three competitions -- Di Matteo kept the hopes of a fourth-place Premier League finish alive until this week, though has conceded defeat after losing against Newcastle. Then, of course, there is the Champions League final later in the month, which takes precedence over the FA Cup.
It's clear that Liverpool's players will be fresher for this game, both mentally and physically, which Di Matteo is well aware of. "We've been pushing the players hard for the past two months and they've done well," he said. "They've given everything, the effort is there and we have asked them to push and push and push." Both clubs rested players for their midweek defeats, though Liverpool has enjoyed one extra day's rest.
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That might be crucial Saturday, for FA Cup finals are rarely exciting spectacles. Four of the past five have finished 1-0, and only three of the past 18 have seen both sides score. Liverpool has a habit of contesting -- and winning -- finals in eventful circumstances, but defensive discipline and levels of stamina will probably decide this one.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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