Not since 1958, when Bolton Wanderers faced the remnants of the Busby Babes in the wake of the Munich Air Disaster has a team arrived at Wembley with so much of the country willing them to lose. The difference here yesterday was that large swathes of the football public wanted both teams to lose.
There is much to admire about the finalists, but in their ranks yesterday were the most unpopular players in the nation. Chelsea were led by John Terry, currently awaiting trial on charges – which he denies – of racially abusing a fellow professional, suspended from the forthcoming Champions' League final for kneeing an opponent off the ball, and twice sacked as England captain. Leading the line for Liverpool was Luis Suarez, found by an FA commission to have racially abused a fellow professional,whose handshake he then snubbed, and whose club then maintained he did nothing wrong.
Add the mutual loathing of the two sets of supporters, exacerbated by the jeering of the minutes' silence for Hillsborough victims by some Chelsea fans last month, and this was a long way from the happy, smiling end-of-season showpiece of memory.
The national anthem was booed, Abide With Me largely ignored, even the traditional sunshine was absent. Perhaps kick-off should have been put back not just to 5.15pm, but beyond the watershed.
As it was, Liverpool played as if it had been put back to 6.30pm, not rousing themselves until Chelsea were two goals up and Andy Carroll was on the pitch. In desperation and extremis Kenny Dalglish, after shuffling his starting XI umpteen times in the first half, had found a formation which worked.
Given Carroll's improved form, and the fact he had scored here in the semi-final, it was a surprise the £35m striker did not start. Perhaps Dalglish fancied the prospect of pitting Suarez, his latest successor in the Liverpool No 7 shirt, against Terry. As the Scot would recall from his own playing days big centre-halves do not enjoy marking quick-footed forwards with a low centre of gravity, good balance and a fast turn. Indeed, there are similarities between Suarez and Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean who so troubled Terry in the Nou Camp the Chelsea defender decided to try and slow him down with that sly knee-jab.
So much for the theory. In practice, Liverpool's overly cautious approach left Suarez isolated. It does not matter how good a player is, and Suarez is a very fine footballer indeed with game intelligence and matchcraft alongside his technical gifts, he is rendered irrelevant if his team-mates cannot bring him into play.
Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson played so deep it was as if they did not trust Jay Spearing to keep the back door locked which meant Suarez was not even close enough to call for a pass.
Liverpool's negative approach was summed up when a half-cleared corner came back to Craig Bellamy, the taker. When he crossed again there were two Liverpool players in the box, and eight Chelsea defenders.
What service Suarez did receive was often aerial and easily headed away by Terry and his partner, Branislav Ivanovic. Thus for Suarez there was a silver lining to Chelsea's second goal. It forced Dalglish to send on Carroll and his team-mates to adopt a more offensive attitude. He no longer needed either a stepladder or binoculars.
Within a couple of minutes Suarez got the ball in a position where he could run at Terry. He ghosted past the centre-half with embarrassing ease. Though his cross was cleared it showed the possibilities. It lifted Liverpool and put Terry on notice that his hitherto comfortable afternoon was about to get much harder.
So it proved, though few expected Carroll to be the player whose whirling footwork 10 minutes later would bewilder Terry before lashing the ball into the roof of the net. That re-ignitedthe game and Suarez, now able to drop into the same areas Juan Mata prowls, began to enjoy the afternoon. Having sent Petr Cech scrambling to save low to his right to save by the post he created, so he thought, the equaliser for Carroll.
One of the South American gifts is the ability to instantaneously size up a situation and as he darted into the box to take the ball from Glen Johnson, he saw Carroll in space. He chipped a delicate cross that Carroll, having lost his marker, should have headed well wide of Cech's reach. The keeper got enough of a hand on the ball to turn it on to the bar and induce sufficient doubt for the linesman to deny the goal. Then we saw the dark side of Suarez as he ranted at the official, incurring a booking for dissent before Dirk Kuyt could pull him away.
The siege resumed and the focus turned back to Terry whose trademark block, as Carroll shot for goal in injury-time, ensured he would, with Frank Lampard, be lifting the old pot as dusk fell. Banned from the Champions' League final Terry will now turn his attention to the Euros, though Roy Hodgson will have watched with unease the problems Terry had when squared up by Suarez and Carroll.
For Suarez the summer will test his loyalty to a Liverpool team which is out of the Champions' League and shows little sign of qualifying for it next season. The club have stood by him in a difficult year but Paris St-Germain and others will offer Champions' League football, and a more welcoming environment.
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