Chelsea seek cohesion, find pain | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Chelsea seek cohesion, find pain

Feb 26, 2024 09:08 PM IST

Sunday’s League Cup final defeat to Liverpool emblematic of a club in chaos

They were separated by the distance a pundit is supposed to have from the touchline but as Mauricio Pochettino, his overcoat unbuttoned midriff and below, surveyed the wreckage of a League Cup final loss, his face giving nothing away, Gary Neville gave his two-bits on Liverpool’s 1-0 win.

Chelsea's head coach Mauricio Pochettino reacts during the English League Cup final soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium(AP) PREMIUM
Chelsea's head coach Mauricio Pochettino reacts during the English League Cup final soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium(AP)

“It’s been Klopp’s kids against the billion-pound bottle jobs,” said Neville, who knows a thing or two about striplings winning famous football competitions. Different tournament, different context, different century even but nearly 29 years after Alan Hansen had said, “you can’t win anything with kids,” Liverpool have shown how wrong their legend was. Just as Fergie’s Fledglings had in 1995-96.

Everything that has to be said about Juergen Klopp’s young team defying odds must be said. Missing 11 regulars meant starts for Conor Bradley and Harvey Elliot, who are 20, and ending with 19-year-olds James McConnell and Bobby Clarke and Jayden Danns, who is 18. Seems like a team in a youth cup final, said a match commentator.

Monster manager, Neville said of Klopp. Of course. Remember how Liverpool upended Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2019? That second wind to seal a berth in Europe last term? Only a monster manger can give Pep Guardiola sleepless nights as the Manchester City boss said in the immediate aftermath of Klopp announcing that he would step down this summer.

“This game will tell you that football isn’t about money,” said Jamie Carragher, now a television expert. Right again. You could put down Klopp saying this was the “most special trophy” he has won to the occasion and the circumstances. Even the best can get carried away when they are serenaded to “You will never walk alone” at Wembley that packed over 88,000.

And once you have done all that, praised where praise was due, you will need to look at Chelsea. Another version of this team, European champions not too long ago and five-time Premier League winners this century, would have put the game to bed in regulation time. Each team hit the framework once through Cole Palmer and Cody Gakpo and VAR cancelled Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk’s goals though Chelsea didn’t look to have learnt anything from how the Liverpool captain was making runs to meet corner-kicks. Incognito after his late introduction, Mykhailo Mudryk, a billion-pound bottle job since arrival last year, failed to clear and Van Dijk flicked home the match’s only goal in the 118th minute.

It is bad enough to lose a final in such circumstances (ask Bayern Munich of the 1999 vintage) but what would make it worse was how blunt Chelsea were in the final third, Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher’s fantastic performance notwithstanding. From Palmer being denied early, Axel Disasi’s miss, Conor Gallagher messing up after going one-on-one with Kelleher, Palmer and Christopher Nkunku, a £52m signing from RB Leipzig for six years, failing to beat the goalkeeper, Chelsea’s problem of not being able to score ruined their chance of ending a six-year wait to win domestic silverware.

“That was the key. We created four, five or six big chances and we didn't score. In a game like this, whoever scores first will have a big advantage,” said Pochettino, who is still to win a trophy in English football.

For Chelsea, League Cup finals are simple games where 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and then Liverpool win. To the ignominy of being 11th in the Premier League, 25 points behind leaders Liverpool, add Chelsea being the first team to have lost six successive finals in England.

In all this, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Chelsea’s squad on Sunday wasn’t much older than Liverpool’s. Malo Gusto is 20, Levi Colwell, Palmer and Noni Madueke are 21. But Pochettino said Chelsea didn't have the energy in extra-time. "They (the players) are professional, they need to feel the pain."

Not too long ago, Chelsea had won three on the bounce in the league and had made this final showing character to overturn a 0-1 defeat at Middlesbrough with a 6-1 win. Then, they held Manchester City away. Yet, Chelsea are so far from being a team that a trophy may not have brought order to the chaos on a club committed to spending nearly £2 billion on players if all of them see out their deals. But it could have helped push the troubles away for some time.

Questions about not adhering to Financial Fair Play regulations in the time of Roman Abramovich haven’t gone away and no one is ruling out points deduction. Like Barcelona, Chelsea need to trim their wage bill and that could mean selling in-house talent such as Gallagher or Reece James. That would achieve the opposite of what Chelsea are trying to build. Cohesion is what Chelsea seek, pain is all they seem to find.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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