There is a sense of déjà vu for Pat Nevin in his column this week. The Chelsea legend reflects on the weekend result and the bigger-picture learnings to take from it, before looking forward and back and finishing with an important note…
There is a particular type of exquisite pain related to unluckily losing a tight cup final. Multiply those feelings a couple of times when it is in a penalty shoot-out, and then double it again when it is your second cup final penalty shoot-out defeat in the same season. For the neutrals it was another fascinating spectacle even if there were no goals again. Years from now, some people will look back on this season and see both domestic finals finishing 0-0 and will probably think they were no-score bore fests, but nothing could be further from the truth. There were chances at both ends throughout and lots of quality play on both sides. By the end it was like watching two exhausted heavyweight boxers slugging it out in the 12th round, neither willing to give an inch.
Like many Chelsea fans we awaited the arrival of Timo Werner’s pace or Kai Havertz’s class that might have made the difference, but the season had taken its toll on both, and the options were severely limited for the manager. Either player might have given us that little edge, especially as Virgil van Dijk had departed the scene, but it is all ifs and buts now. To beat Liverpool, everything has to go in your favour, and those two blows went a long way to scuppering our chances.
What can Thomas and his team really take from the two cup finals against Liverpool? Well, there is no doubt that Chelsea have still been able to stand toe to toe with one of the best teams on the planet, a team lauded just about everywhere, but who still weren’t able to beat us in open play during four long games and two extra-times this season. It underlines that there is a base to build on and Thomas Tuchel will know that. He had half-a-season last time, and to be fair he did quite well… okay, that might be the understatement of the century! This season has had more disruptions and uncertainties than most I care to recall, but the team has still been competitive. He needs some certainty and normality, or at least as close as you can get to that at Chelsea!
There has been the odd season over the past 20 years when the Blues have fallen apart – maybe only one back in 2015/16 - but it didn’t happen this time, even with the sanctions and the existential fear swirling around the club. Arsenal's defeat at Newcastle has given us the Champions League football we crave, but also shown prospective new players that Chelsea are still a force to be reckoned with, and one that will probably be better next season. That would make tempting the new blood on board so much easier.
It actually feels like a great opportunity for Tuchel to put his stamp on the squad even more than he has been able to up until now. Most managers will tell you that it can take two or three seasons to get the squad you really want, one in your own image that can do exactly what you need it to do. Not that many managers get that much time or to be honest enough financial backing to match their vision.
This summer transfer window will tell us a great deal about Tuchel and his aspirations, as well as the club’s aspirations, and our ability to compete on the European and world stage as well as match the manager’s vision going forward. The new direction will become clear fairly quickly once the ownership issue is resolved and the replacements for exiting players, particularly at the back, are revealed.
It was, however, still a painful weekend for the men. You never like to lose an FA Cup final and the fans looked crestfallen afterwards. I suppose we have got used to being winners at Wembley over the past couple of decades. There are a few players in the group who must be getting very miffed with the most recent run of domestic finals that they’ve had to trudge away from afterwards holding runner-up medals. They will already be thinking about fixing that the next time they make it to that magnificent stadium, and I just hope it is sooner rather than later.
There was more than a little compensation to be had from Chelsea Women who held their nerve the next day in extra time to win the FA Cup and celebrate the league and cup double. The standard of football in England is growing solidly every season in the men’s game, but in the women’s game it is growing at an incredible rate. The standard at Arsenal, Man City and now Manchester United makes this year’s league and cup double an exceptional triumph. Congratulations to everyone concerned, the club and the fans needed lifting after Saturday, and Emma and her team did a great job of bringing the smiles back to the Blues.
There is a job still to do for the men’s team if we are to finish as high in the league as possible. With a few injuries to key players, Spurs have sneaked up on the rails, so the home game against Leicester and if not them, then Watford at the weekend, may still be needed to get us third. I am still very confident and those 120 minutes against Liverpool actually bolstered my belief rather than shake it.
I had quite a week personally, bumping into other former Chelsea wide attackers at every turn. I had a couple of hours with Joe Cole (and Steve Sidwell) in east London, then met Florent Malouda and Shaun Wright-Phillips at Wembley. It is very noticeable when you meet these lads, however many years since their time at the club and however many games they played, how much they still care about it and how passionate they are about us winning.
Taking care of our own
They each also understood one very important thing, that players who miss penalties in shoot-outs are not to be made scapegoats. It is something that used to happen regularly in British football outside the actual game, and in a very ugly way. Players and managers have always understood that it is not something that should define a player.
I know Chelsea fans will never turn on the lads who have missed crucial penalties, but it is worth underlining that however strong they are psychologically, they will be hurting, so a special cheer for them when they turn out on Thursday wouldn’t go amiss. Not that anybody has to tell the Chelsea fans this. We take care of our own and that is why they stick by us as the years go by.