“The cup has lost its magic” may have been a familiar criticism levelled at the FA Cup during the past decade, with many Premier League teams prioritising their league campaign over a potential trophy. But try telling that to Chelsea and Liverpool supporters on Saturday, when their sides will do battle at Wembley to win the 2012 edition of the oldest competition of its kind in football.
While upsets have been at a premium during this year’s tournament, there has been a handful of heartwarming tales too. Stevenage belied their League One status to reach the fifth round, where they held Tottenham Hotspur at home and took a shock early lead in the return at White Hart Lane before bowing out with a 3-1 defeat.
Birmingham City, Blackpool, Brighton & Hove Albion, Crawley Town and Millwall also represented the lower leagues in the fifth round, while Championship side Leicester City - who were beaten by Chelsea at the quarter-final stage - were the only team from outside the top flight to reach the final eight as the Premier League elite flexed their muscles in later rounds.
The Blues could be forgiven for having their eyes on an even bigger prize, with the UEFA Champions League final against Bayern Munich just a fortnight away, while the Reds have already claimed one piece of silverware this season - a penalty shoot-out victory over Cardiff City securing the League Cup in February - and are making their third trip to the national stadium in London this season.
Liverpool are attempting to win the competition for the eighth time, their last triumph coming via a penalty shoot-out after a pulsating 3-3 draw with West Ham United in 2006. Steven Gerrard, the hero that day at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff with a stunning last-minute equaliser, has overcome a recent injury and will be fit to lead his team in their second showpiece of the season.
Although each tie was played at Anfield, Kenny Dalglish’s side have perhaps had the more difficult challenges on their journey to a 14th FA Cup final appearance, having eliminated rivals Manchester United in the fourth round and Stoke City in the quarter-finals, before coming from behind to edge Merseyside neighbours Everton in their Wembley semi-final last month.
In the aftermath of that derby triumph, Dalglish revealed how much it meant to the club. The Scot, who won one FA Cup as a player-manager and another as a manager with the Reds, told the club’s website: “That is now two cup finals (this season) - one we've won and the other one we're now looking forward to. That gives everybody who supports Liverpool Football Club a lift.”
For their part, the Blues have also faced Premier League opposition along the way. They knocked out Queens Park Rangers in the fourth round and particularly showed their class during their 5-1 thrashing of Spurs in the other derby semi-final. The Stamford Bridge side also required a replay to progress past 2011 League Cup winners and Championship play-off contenders Birmingham.
The replay was the first match following the decision to replace Andre Villas-Boas with Roberto Di Matteo, who has guided the Blues to two cup finals and brought them back into contention to finish in the Premier League’s top four. The Italian has lost just one match since taking charge and presided over a run which also included an aggregate victory over Barcelona to set up these glamour games with Bayern and Liverpool.
Chelsea hold cup pedigree
Chelsea have impressive recent history in the FA Cup, which they have lifted three times in the previous five seasons. Final wins over Manchester United, Everton and Portsmouth in 2007, 2009 and 2010 respectively doubled the Blues’ haul of trophies in the competition. Didier Drogba scored in each of those victories, while Di Matteo himself was on target with the winning goal when the Blues beat Aston Villa 1-0 in the 2000 final.
The two teams have met twice already this season, with both fixtures at Stamford Bridge within the space of nine November days and both resulting in victories for the visiting team. The Premier League encounter finished 2-1 in Liverpool’s favour, having been settled by a sensational solo goal from former Chelsea defender Glen Johnson with three minutes left to play after earlier strikes from Maxi Rodriguez and Daniel Sturridge.
The Reds returned to west London just over a week later for a League Cup quarter-final and produced a similar performance. Rodriguez again opened the scoring, this time in the second half, and the lead was doubled moments later by Martin Kelly. The travelling defence held firm to secure a 2-0 scoreline which helped Dalglish’s men on their way to winning the trophy.
Those results, coupled with their league double over the Blues last season, will leave Liverpool in a buoyant mood ahead of kick-off. However, they will be wary of the resurgence of Fernando Torres, who has found form again after his all-important goal against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Both the Spaniard and team-mate Raul Meireles are facing their former club, but previous allegiances will be forgotten as the pair go in search of their first trophy in blue.
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