In pictures: Chelsea v Liverpool
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Mateo Kovacic got 65 minutes out of his dangling ligament to give Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel exactly what he needed in the FA Cup final. While Liverpool were clearly stung by the early loss of Mohamed Salah, the withdrawal of Kovacic was a sign of ‘job done’ rather than what was left undone when it eventually came, although the Blues could not come out as victors after another penalty shootout against the Reds.
The Carabao Cup showed that this match always had potential to go right down to the wire – and so it did, again – and the headache for the Chelsea manager was making sure his side stayed in contention long enough. “It is the moment to take the risk, yeah,” Tuchel said of Kovacic’s injury situation ahead of the game.
Most observers just shook their heads sadly at the prognosis for Kovacic when they saw Dan James’ assault on him during the Premier League game at Leeds on Wednesday. Kovacic was forced out of the game after just 30 minutes and it seemed that was it for the season.
More incredible than his potential availability just four days later was the explanation Thomas Tuchel gave for the fact he was still in contention for this Wembley showpiece. Apparently, his ligament was already so badly detached and mobile that the kicking from James could do little more damage.
“It just helped because his ligament was already too mobile at this moment, so he could not injure himself because he was already more or less injured,” Tuchel explained. A few painkillers, a two-and-a-half-hour test on the training ground at Cobham on Friday and Kovacic was considered right as rain.
At first glance, Tuchel is blessed in the central defensive holding role position and could easily have shrugged Kovacic’s problems off. But it is the subtle weaknesses that Liverpool exploit and his lack of energy would have been one of them.
Jorginho, for example, plays at a slower, more deliberate pace. He might not have got to Sadio Mane in time to make the timely challenge with which Kovacic could first tense the stability of his injury. The lack of end product in the first half disguised just how quickly the ball was moving through the central phase and the shuffling into position that was needed to achieve that.
Kovacic is able to chase along a line, forcing the hurried pass, while at the same time instantly able to switch play as he did to good effect when Chelsea countered. But it was only after half-time that his real mission became clear.
N’Golo Kante, too, clearly only had a fraction of a game in him and Tuchel needed somebody to keep Chelsea in the game long enough for the former player-of-the-year to exploit any Liverpool tiredness.
So when his No 8 was raised after 65 minutes, Kovacic reluctantly withdrew. His job had been done, just as Tuchel suspected it would be. The frustration was that a man so often in the middle was now going to see this through to the better end sat on the sidelines. And there was extra frustration when Liverpool, again, came out victorious on penalties despite another brilliant Chelsea performance.
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