Thursday , October 6 2022

By reaching FA Cup final, Chelsea can redeem a season derailed by uncertainty and ownership drama

LONDON — The most turbulent season in Chelsea‘s modern-day history could end as so many have before this one: with another trophy.

Chelsea will return to Wembley on May 14 to contest the FA Cup final against Liverpool after beating Crystal Palace 2-0 in Sunday’s second semifinal, courtesy of goals from substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount. They may even have a new owner by then.

New York-based merchant bank Raine Group are expected to identify the preferred bidder from a shortlist of four in the next few days. Once the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport approve the chosen party, the Premier League will complete the requisite ownership tests — chief executive Richard Masters has said the quickest previous completion was 10 days “but that’s not to say that record cannot be beaten.”

It is therefore feasible that Chelsea’s first piece of silverware in the post-Roman Abramovich era could come at the earliest possible opportunity, the climax of a hugely uncertain two-and-a-half-month spell that began with Chelsea’s last visit to Wembley, February’s Carabao Cup final defeat to (coincidentally enough) Liverpool.

The mere fact they have this opportunity is testament to the job manager Thomas Tuchel has done in navigating a season of which Sunday’s victory was Chelsea’s 54th game in all competitions. By contrast, Crystal Palace have now played just 37.

Expectations are palpably lower at Palace — this was only their second FA Cup semifinal since 1995 — and Tuchel possesses a squad with much greater depth as a result. But Chelsea have had to negotiate an unprecedented spell ever since Abramovich hinted that his ownership may be evolving before UK government sanctions restricted the club’s ability to operate as usual. Travel plans were thrown into chaos, contract talks frozen, the club shop closed for business.

Abramovich’s first statement — attempting to avoid a sale by passing “stewardship and care” of the club to Chelsea’s charitable foundation trustees — came the night before facing Liverpool in February, a game they went on to lose 11-10 on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Now, Chelsea will face Liverpool again with, they hope, their ownership mess in the rearview.

“We gave everything in that final, as you know, and it was a big match that went until the very last penalty,” said Tuchel after Sunday’s semifinal. “Of course we were unlucky and lost it.

“We want to turn things around. It will not give us the Carabao title back but we are here. We were here last season in the FA Cup final, we are here again, and that means an unbelievable lot to us because the FA Cup is the most prestigious, the most traditional cup in the world maybe, played at Wembley.

“There are not a lot of bigger games to be part of. That’s why we are grateful and we will be well-prepared because we play against one of the strongest teams in the world, which have outstanding form given the results. We will try to make life hard for them.”

Ever since that first Abramovich announcement, Chelsea’s very identity has been in question — a club so irrevocably moulded in the image of one benevolent benefactor, but now with Tuchel trying to keep the Blues at a level to which they have become accustomed.

They fell fractionally short in midweek, exiting the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage despite a heroic second-leg performance at Real Madrid — and the after-effects of such a debilitating night were in evidence early on here.

Palace boss Patrick Vieira abandoned his usual shape to match Chelsea up with a three-man defence and, given the Blues’ leaden legs early on, the first half was something of a stalemate most notable for an injury to Mateo Kovacic, forcing Loftus-Cheek’s 26th-minute introduction.

Although Chelsea improved after the restart, the game still appeared to be drifting towards extra-time when Tyrick Mitchell lost the ball cheaply on the edge of Palace’s box after 65 minutes and the Blues broke. Kai Havertz looked to cross but his pass took a deflection, falling perfectly for Loftus-Cheek, whose shot flew past Palace goalkeeper Jack Butland via a slight deflection.

It was quite a moment for Loftus-Cheek to score his first goal of the season, ending a run of 59 games and 56 shots without scoring.

Palace’s game plan was undone and they were unable to move through the gears. Eleven minutes elapsed before Timo Werner made inroads and timed a fine pass for Mount, who slotted home a second to seal Chelsea’s spot in next month’s showpiece.

There was still time for a raft of substitutions and an embarrassing miss from Romelu Lukaku — hitting the post from five yards out with the goal at his mercy — but it did not affect Tuchel’s remarkable semifinal record, now 11 out of 11 for Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.

Even more impressively, it is Tuchel’s sixth final with Chelsea in just 15 months since succeeding Frank Lampard as head coach. And this will be a third FA Cup final in a row after losing to Arsenal in 2020 under Lampard and Leicester City last year, heightening the sense of Chelsea coming full circle.

“To have this big final at the end of the season is massive because it gives you this joy to have something waiting and right now if it is not only the league, which is demanding enough, but you have another final, which gives you a lot of confidence and it is a big emotional boost,” said Tuchel.

“All we can do now is to be well prepared because it will be another hard fight given the quality and the recent run of form from Liverpool, it is unbelievably difficult to beat them,” Tuchel added. “But this is what a cup final is about — it is about winning. We need to try to find a way to beat them.”

Chelsea habitually find a way. They have another chance to do so now — perhaps at the dawn of a new era.


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