There will be few more gut-wrenching experiences than that which Chelsea supporters all over the world suffered in the dying minutes of Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Leicester City.
The minutes were ticking down, and the chances of drawing level were getting slimmer and slimmer. Then, from nowhere, the breakthrough arrived.
Ben Chilwell got onto the end of a raking pass deep into the Foxes’ box, cut the ball back, and saw his cross rebound off former teammate Wes Morgan and into the back of the net. Heartbreak for the club legend, and ecstasy for the Blues.
Fate had one last twist in store for the big Jamaican’s Leicester career, though. The VAR Gods came down, cast a hazy, blurry eye over proceedings, and deemed Chilwell to have been offside in the buildup.
Chelsea supporters were left dismayed by the decision, and with that, the game was up. As raw emotions surface, fans will be quick to point fingers at modern technology and lay the blame at the video assistant referee’s door, and to be honest, it’s not an irrational thought process to endure after such a traumatic event.
Perhaps it’ll only be when the dust has settled in a day or so that they will look back and wonder just how different the game would have been had coach Thomas Tuchel not rotated such key players for the big final.
The first noticeable absentee, although possibly the least surprising, was Edouard Mendy. Tuchel has made Kepa Arrizabalaga his designated FA Cup keeper, so he was destined to pick him for the final.
And we can’t really blame him for the 1-0 loss. After all, he was eventually beaten by a pure screamer from Youri Tielemans – a goal worthy of winning any FA Cup. The main surprise arrived to the left of the Spanish shot-stopper, however.
Attacking full-back Chilwell was initially left on the bench, and without him, the Blues severely lacked any pace or intent down that left flank. Marcos Alonso played in his place, and although he didn’t do too much wrong, he didn’t offer half of the danger which the English wing-back can provide.
Chilwell’s crossing and desire to get onto the end of deliveries was missing from that opening 68 minutes, and it speaks volumes that he only featured for 22 minutes, yet hit the post with a header, and set up what might have been the equaliser on another day.
How different things would have been had he started. He wasn’t the only surprising omission from the starting lineup, though. Kai Havertz, who has grown to show more than just flashes of what he can do in recent weeks, was left out of the action – and it showed.
Hakim Ziyech got the nod ahead of him, and the winger was extremely ineffective throughout the match. Luke Thomas, a talented player but who has understandably struggled against the very best forwards in his breakout season, didn’t have to break a sweat when marshalling the Moroccan.
And on top of that is the disappointing absence of Tammy Abraham from the entire squad. The forward did not even make the bench for the final, something that will have hurt the youth academy product deeply.
To rub salt into the wounds, he ends the season as the club’s highest scorer in the FA Cup, having been trusted to lead the line in previous rounds. Unfortunately for Abraham and his Chelsea career, the writing appears to be very much on the wall. He’s just not going to be one of Tuchel’s men.
And that bitterness will linger in the mouth even longer, when reflecting on the tepid and counter-productive performance of Timo Werner, who robbed Cesar Azpilicueta of the opening goal with an unnecessary glancing header, and generally contributed nothing for his team.
All in all, it was a crushing afternoon for the Blues. The possibility of victory will have certainly meant a great deal to supporters, and they’ll be devastated to have had the chance of celebrating at Wembley snatched from under them.
The players will have to dust themselves down and go again pretty quickly, as they still have a top-four battle to scrap for – including another clash with the bouncing Foxes – while a date with destiny beckons in the form of a Champions League final.
Tuchel won’t risk rotating his stars for that match, of course, but Blues supporters will be hoping that he’s learned a lesson from today: trophies matter, and his flippancy has cost his side big time.