Another Trophy: When A Cup Final Coincided With War In Europe
Chapter from the new book "This Red Planet"
Chapter from This Red Planet: How Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC Enthralled and Conquered The World (Available via all global Amazon stores.)
First half of the chapter is free to read, second half is behind the paywall.
Another Trophy: When A Cup Final Coincided With War In Europe
Football (and life) had been extremely strange for two full years, but it got stranger still, to be playing a game – days after the ending of the UK’s Covid restrictions, pandemic seemingly finally in full retreat after 24 months – against a club whose owner (allegedly) gained his obscene wealth via ties (allegedly) to the very Russian despot (allegedly) who (allegedly) had (allegedly) just taken it upon himself to attack Ukraine, whilst (allegedly) (allegedly) (allegedly) getting his nuclear arsenal on standby.
(Roman Abramovich is also quite litigious. Allegedly.)
Nuke-less, unlike his leader, Abramovich’s arsenal came at the cost of £1.6billion, owed to the club as a mark of his ‘overspending’ since acquiring the club in 2003. (With football-specific inflation, in terms of what he got in terms of player acquisition, you could easily double that – maybe quadruple it – given that he helped drive up the price of transfers; indeed, all those early c.£30m purchases equate to around £200m in 2022 money.)
On the eve of the match, Abramovich, on the run from the UK government’s impending sanctions, tried to hand over “stewardship” and “care” to the club’s charity’s trustees, like a man handing over a ticking time-bomb to unwitting bystanders as its seconds ticked down to zero. The trustees of the charity – most of whom had nothing to do with the running of the club, and some of whom were not even businesspeople (such as Emma Hayes, the women’s team manager, and Sebastian Coe, the athletics shill) – were obviously not so keen, but in order to protect the club and his assets, he used its charity as a metaphorical human shield; so not only did he hand over the device, he crouched behind them in anticipation of its detonation. All the while, the man he knew, who became president, launched literal explosives at the people of Kiev.
This meant that tied up with the League Cup final – not one of the major trophies, but a big Wembley occasion between two heavyweight rivals – came the whole debate about sportswashing and dubious foreign ownership. It occurred on a weekend when Liverpool were relying on Everton – partly bankrolled by über-oligarch and even more of a Putin acolyte, Alisher Usmanov (such as his company paying £30m just for the privilege of a mere option on naming rights to the new stadium, to show the kind of largesse at work) – to take down Man City in the Premier League; following just a month or so after the farce of the Chinese Communist Party and Russia making a mockery of clean sport at the Olympics. By late February 2022, there were troops invading a European country for the first time since 1945. Within days, Abramovich had Chelsea up for sale, and Everton hastily severed links with Usmanov, who was then sanctioned by the UK government. (The amount of money Everton were going to receive via Usmanov seemed integral to their financial model for their new £500m stadium.)
For oligarchs, it was the week when the shit hit the fan.
TTT Subscriber Ian Bryan, in the Czech Republic at the time, noted on the site just before the game that, “I have just come back from an incredibly emotional 60,000+ demonstration on Wenceslas Square in Prague. I just pray that Liverpool FC and the fans put on a huge show of support for Ukraine. This match will likely be beamed into Russian living rooms as they have stations which show English games and Chelsea have big support for obvious reasons. Some things really are more important than football.”
Yet even in the worst of times, football can offer something to cling to. Most things are more important than football. But we do the football all the same, until doing it itself becomes a matter of life and death; until it arrives at the stadium door, via plague or ordinances or violence, or an ageing infrastructure on the brink of collapse or disaster.
(Since the turn of 2020 alone, we’ve had three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse; the last horseman – ‘wild beasts’ – perhaps saddled up a few months later, to don riot gear and tear-gas fans at the Stade de France.)
At any moment, somewhere in the world innumerable people will be dying in poverty and in agony and of disease, and so taking the chance to enjoy freedom – while still yours – is not something to feel guilty about. Still, thoughts were rightly with the people of Ukraine, suffering such barbarism.
(I’m no political expert, but once a leader rides a horse bare-chested and, in one sense, barebacked, all bets are off. Let’s face it, as much as I loathed her, no one ever accused Margaret Thatcher of that. Disclaimer: the author accepts no responsibility for the evocation of mental images that can ‘never be unseen’, and any subsequent therapy is to be endured at the reader’s own cost.)
Liverpool were due to go into the game with just Roberto Firmino injured, and Joe Gomez, Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and other fine players unable to make the matchday 20. The bench was, yet again, about as strong as it gets; albeit not packed with expensive stars. However, the situation soon changed for one of the youngsters. Thiago Alcântara – winner of just about everything, multiple times – ended up in tears after injuring himself in the warm-up, and so Elliott then made the bench. Elliott later got onto the pitch, and scored his penalty in the shootout; becoming the Reds’ youngest-ever finalist, while James Milner proved the club’s oldest-ever to play at Wembley. In addition, 31 other players represented the club during the cup run, many of them teenagers.
On the bench, of the outfield players, only Naby Keïta cost £50m or more (not adjusted for inflation) – or half a Romelu Lukaku, who sat warming Chelsea’s bench. Of course, with inflation, Kepa Arrizabalaga cost almost £100m (£97.5m), and he would get onto the pitch in unusual circumstances, and prove the game’s decisive player. Alisson Becker – on the Reds’ bench in order to weaken the team (to give a chance to the rookie no.2 out of loyalty) – is a £90m player in 2022 money.
Including the home-grown Reece James, the five subs Chelsea used cost £318m adjusted for inflation (just over £250m unadjusted, as many of them were fairly recent acquisitions and prices haven’t risen massively since pre-pandemic days). Timo Werner, £50m before inflation (£53m), joined Jorginho, up to £57m before inflation (£68m). Starter Kai Havertz cost £81m in 2022 money. Lukaku, bought in 2022 money (given that it was part of the 2021/22 season), therefore still cost £99.5m. In the end, the 17 players Liverpool used cost a total of £570m in 2022 money, and Chelsea’s 16 cost £680m.
When Liverpool spend over £40m on a player, they are usually relying on them to be in the XI when fit, or perhaps first choice from the bench. Adjusted to 2022 money, four of Chelsea’s subs averaged £80m apiece, with three of them not shoo-ins to Thomas Tuchel’s team; indeed, often left out when fit in recent times. The Blues had cut their cloth a little tighter to FFP’s demands since 2010, after Chelsea and their Russian owner blew the transfer landscape apart in the mid-2000s, but the spending, curtailed even more by a brief transfer ban a few years ago, certainly ramped up again when Covid-19 meant financial rules were slackened. SwissRamble’s Kieron O’Connor noted that in only two seasons out of 19 had Abramovich not invested substantial money into the club’s kitty, to cover shortfalls.
A Great 0-0!
The game itself proved a thrilling, end-to-end 0-0 draw, with the Reds often lacking a little midfield control due to the absence of their Spanish maestro, but having the upper hand in that area, for periods at least, due to outnumbering the indefatigable N’golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić. The normal-time xG had the Reds “winning” 2.41 to 1.84 according to Opta, but that could obviously (roughly) round down/up to a 2-2 draw. (Interestingly, Liverpool also won the shootout on post-shot xG, which is based not on shot location, as everyone shoots from the same 12-yard spot, but shot placement.)
Liverpool looked leggy later on, with Diogo Jota on as a sub after just one training session following injury (and his season never really recovered), and Elliott having started just one game after five months out. Incredibly, Mo Salah was playing his 5th period of extra-time in just 31 days, four of them in the African heat. As deep as the Reds’ bench looked, it didn’t have the pace, power or expense of Chelsea’s. For all their faults since joining Chelsea, Werner and Lukaku are not the kind of fresh substitutes any tiring defence would want to face. Their pace is a nightmare for defenders, and it took the introduction of Ibrahima Konaté – whose giant frame means he can be slow off the mark but rapid once into his long sprinter’s stride – to stem the threat, after the excellent Joël Matip gave way in extra-time.
Indeed, Matip looked to have won the game in normal time, with a far-post header, in a goal reminiscent of the Community Shield draw with Man City in 2019. This time, it was belatedly deemed offside by VAR in that Virgil Van Dijk, who didn’t touch the ball, apparently interfered in blocking a Chelsea player (even though he was the one being held; with a new tactic at high-line set-pieces to push Liverpool players either into offside positions, or at the other end, push them so they step back and play a forward offside).
The inconsistency of the decision-making remains the main bugbear on offsides, as players can make offside decoy runs to influence the play, to allow an onside player to profit. That is seeking to gain an advantage, and Liverpool concede goals via that tactic. The only exemptions for offside players being ignored should be for players who are not near the play, and who are not running forward; anyone coming back from an offside position with an arm up in acknowledgement should be deemed as ‘not interfering’, but anyone who chases forward, towards the ball, or to create space, even if they then stop, is disrupting a defence. (Of course, this is football, and the PGMOL.) It’s a lottery to know if officials feel someone is interfering or not, when anyone forcing a defensive line to move is clearly affecting the play.
Several TTT subscribers were at Wembley for the Reds’ first domestic cup final since 2016. Mick and Jennifer Thomas bumped into another (unnamed) subscriber, which is interesting for a niche site. Allen Baynes, present at Wembley 57 years earlier for the Reds’ first domestic cup success (as one of 28 finals attended), also attended the occasion when Ukrainian flags were seen amongst both sets of supporters. Allen shared his experiences in an article for the site, which included, “As you might predict, one end was pretty full before the kick-off, the other had large areas of red empty seats; one end had numerous home-made banners, the other end had plastic flags. How different the two clubs’ supporters are. Their lot didn’t understand that during the minute’s applause for Ukraine, our rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was for the people of Ukraine, and so they booed.