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Chelsea v Liverpool: Tuchel game plans not in doubt – but creaking bodies led to broken hearts

After the 10th penalty of the fourth shootout — following the sixth extra-time — of the 61st match of Chelsea’s never-ending season, Thomas Tuchel momentarily convinced himself of a glorious finish.

Edouard Mendy had just flung his giant body low to his left to palm away countryman Sadio Mane’s attempted winning kick, haul Chelsea back from the brink and seemingly shift the momentum. But what happens when, in the post-match words of Jurgen Klopp, there are “mentality monsters” on both sides? The answer is that events are not bound by such conventions.

Liverpool barely blinked, two more successful kicks passed, Mason Mount was next to miss and Kostas Tsimikas, arguably the second-least conspicuous hero of this gruelling FA Cup final after Ross Barkley, dispatched the nerveless penalty that settled it. As the music blared and the red smoke rose to fill Wembley, Tuchel and his Chelsea players sank into the shock of having their hearts broken for the second time in four months by a team who have not defeated them in four meetings this season.

In truth, though, this was not quite like the Carabao Cup final in February, when Chelsea traded blows with arguably the greatest Liverpool team ever assembled on equal footing over 120 inexplicably goalless minutes. This time they gave the impression early on of a side clinging loosely together at the seams: Kai Havertz omitted from the match day squad due to hamstring problems, Mateo Kovacic starting despite an ankle so swollen that Tuchel subsequently admitted he didn’t think it could fit into a football boot, Thiago Silva hobbled following a desperate first-half scramble.

The first 20 minutes could have been a massacre, with Luis Diaz running rampant and Liverpool’s passers finding him at will through and around feeble Chelsea pressure. Tuchel afterwards pointed to nerves and anxiety for the start, but his first-half tactical shift to defend deeper hinted at an acknowledgement that his players simply didn’t have the legs or the intensity for an open game. Chelsea’s rally at the start of the second half defied their circumstances but it was Liverpool who again produced the clearer chances to win it, with Diaz and Andy Robertson both hitting the post.

Just as in the second leg against Real Madrid last month, Tuchel’s substitutions were relatively late and had little positive effect. Taking off Romelu Lukaku for Hakim Ziyech — the man most likely to find him with a cross or through ball — was strange, even if the subsequent deployment of Ruben Loftus-Cheek up front was a little more comprehensible within the context of Timo Werner, the forward best equipped to punish Liverpool’s high line, tweaking his hamstring while warming up.

Untimely muscle injuries may be reflective of Tuchel’s over-reliance on a narrow core of this squad in recent weeks, but some degree of attrition is also inevitable in the final throes of a campaign this long and punishing. Liverpool went into this FA Cup final without Fabinho and lost Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk in the course of it; while that reality will only deepen the Chelsea sense of an opportunity missed, it also gave Klopp the chance to demonstrate his vastly superior bench.

Chelsea, throughout 19 years of billionaire benevolence, have never been able to point to a paucity of financial resources in their squad building, but functional squad depth only extends as far as the coach’s trust. Liverpool, as Tuchel pointed out several times during his sombre post-match press conference in the bowels of Wembley, “built this team for many years now” to Klopp’s specifications. It’s harder to make the same argument for a club that hands Ross Barkley his first minutes since January for a defining cup final penalty shootout in May.

“I think we proved four times this season that we can produce peak performances to compete with them on this kind of level, and it showed in the results,” Tuchel said after the match. “They could have come in our way or their way. The difference for me at the moment throughout the season is they can do it on Wednesday again, and then on Saturday. We struggle.”

Tuchel’s squad and game management has been increasingly questioned by Chelsea supporters in recent months, and his biggest touchline calls against Liverpool at Wembley and against Madrid at the Bernabeu look less than flattering in the unforgiving glare of ultimate defeat — but it is also fair to note that in each case, his success in devising game plans to navigate better opponents or unfavourable circumstances put this team in positions where victory seemed possible.

That is something real for Chelsea to cling to as they nurse the pain of another domestic cup final defeat, and look with trepidation towards a challenging summer of rebuild and renewal in a new era.

(Photo: Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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