LONDON — Nothing fairly screams “Chelsea want a striker” because the sight of Ross Barkley enjoying at centre-forward in an FA Cup closing.
It was a circuitous path to this most weird of conditions, counting on a peripheral midfielder with none first-team minutes since Jan. 8 to assist shut out an event resembling Saturday’s loss on penalties to Liverpool — however nonetheless offered proof of the principal purpose a spot stays between the Blues and the highest two sides in England.
– ESPN+ information: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, extra (U.S.)
– Stream ESPN FC Day by day on ESPN+ (U.S. solely)
– Do not have ESPN? Get instantaneous entry
Most well-liked possibility Kai Havertz failed a late health take a look at on a hamstring drawback, Romelu Lukaku was substituted after 85 minutes, Christian Pulisic did not impress when moved into the center, Timo Werner sustained a hamstring drawback within the warm-up and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lasted simply 13 minutes earlier than Barkley’s superior penalty-taking file triggered his sudden inclusion for the ultimate couple of minutes of additional time.
Barkley transformed his spot kick, and so in that context, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel will really feel that exact resolution was justified. But bringing on Loftus-Cheek within the first place so late within the recreation — initially of the second interval of additional time — was by itself considerably baffling given the proximity to penalties.
If Werner was nonetheless match sufficient for the bench, may he not have performed quarter-hour? And the curious image of Barkley enjoying out time as a makeshift No. 9 is symbolic of a wider problem. With or with out Lukaku, Chelsea merely haven’t been as cohesive in assault as Manchester Metropolis and Liverpool over the course of the marketing campaign.
As was the case when these sides additionally met in February’s Carabao Cup closing and in April’s Champions League quarterfinal exit to Actual Madrid, the Blues had ample possibilities at Wembley on Saturday to win however did not take them. For all his troubles since returning to Chelsea in a €115 million transfer from Internazionale final summer time, Lukaku is the membership’s high scorer this season with 15 objectives. Solely three different gamers have gotten into double figures throughout all competitions. Liverpool, in contrast, have three gamers — Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota — who’ve scored 15 objectives every within the Premier League alone.
With two video games to play, Chelsea have scored 73 objectives within the league, a decent tally however nonetheless effectively in need of Liverpool (89) and Metropolis, who’ve scored 94 objectives regardless of failing to signal the centre-forward they desired final summer time. Pep Guardiola discovered a solution to preserve Metropolis’s effectiveness regardless in a way Tuchel hasn’t fairly matched. It’s a state of affairs which should be high of the in-tray as soon as the brand new membership house owners are in place: both switch Lukaku or construct round him extra successfully to shut the hole on Liverpool and Metropolis.
The difficulty of Lukaku’s future resurfaced as soon as once more on the eve of Saturday’s recreation, creating headlines the Belgian himself sought to diffuse after his agent had been quoted discussing a return to Italy — however by that stage on Friday, Tuchel had already admitted it was “a state of affairs you do not wish to have earlier than massive matches.”
Lukaku’s unhappiness has bubbled alongside within the background ever since he gave that controversial interview to Sky Italia again in December, however wider occasions have since overtaken Chelsea, most clearly the sale triggered by the UK authorities sanctioning proprietor Roman Abramovich for alleged ties to Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Havertz has proved a more practical possibility, however arguably extra so with out the ball as he leads the Chelsea press so effectively; his absence was keenly felt early on at Wembley on Saturday as Liverpool threatened to overwhelm the Blues in a devastating opening 20-minute spell wherein Luis Diaz ran riot with out scoring. Pulisic had a number of possibilities as Chelsea settled — the clearest two minutes after the restart when firing straight at Alisson from contained in the field — however this was a wasteful efficiency from the US worldwide, one other instance of the profligacy that permeates the squad.
Lukaku was withdrawn having touched the ball simply 15 occasions, the fewest of any starter on the pitch except for Salah (13), who performed solely 33 minutes earlier than selecting up a groin harm. Shedding Werner shortly earlier than kickoff was unlucky, however the Germany worldwide has by no means been essentially the most dependable performer in any case, actually one other to lack the scientific contact Chelsea so badly want in entrance of aim.
Tuchel talked about the federal government sanctions’ impression on his planning for subsequent season and the debilitating impact on the tip to this marketing campaign, citing gamers together with Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger leaving as the alternative to the unity Liverpool presently possess. But Chelsea had been nonetheless in a position to rally to match Liverpool stride for stride, falling brief solely in entrance of aim as soon as extra; it felt vital within the wider context that not one in all Chelsea’s seven penalties was taken by a recognised ahead whereas Liverpool had Jota, Roberto Firmino and Mane amongst their takers.
As an alternative of 1 final piece of silverware to finish the Abramovich period, Chelsea declare an undesirable piece of historical past as the primary staff ever to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals. After the 2020 loss to Arsenal, they had been crushed 1-0 by Leicester Metropolis final season on account of one other barren outing in entrance of aim, a problem repeated with such regularity that it prompted them to pay a club-record price to signal Lukaku. The issue nonetheless stays.