Chelsea meet Liverpool on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium on Saturday (11 CST on Fox Soccer Channel) in the final of England's historic FA Cup*. It's a chance for Liverpool to further attempt to salvage a poor season by adding the trophy to their earlier league win (Carling Cup), and while Chelsea might have one eye on the Champions League final in two weeks, they'll be looking to take the trophy home, too.
This should be a fairly spicy affair, as quite a rivalry has developed between the two clubs (this is the 31st time they've met in the past 8 seasons), based largely around their meetings in the Champions League and other cups. But in addition to the usual head-to-head battles, this match features a number of compelling subplots.
1. Roberto di Matteo vs Kenny Dalglish
The two managers both bring quite a story to the table. di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas as interim Chelsea manager in March, and has exceeded all expectations by turning around a Champions League first-leg loss to Napoli in one of the most epic European performances in a long time, and then leading the club to the final of that competition -- the one trophy that's eluded bazillionaire owner Roman Abramovich. Taking home either the Champions League or FA Cup trophy might make it hard for Abramovich to replace di Matteo in the summer.
Kenny Dalglish is a Liverpool legend, both as a player and as a manager in the 80s. His return to the club as Roy Hodgson's replacement was hailed as a godsend last season, when he oversaw a dramatic jump in form. This season has been little short of a disaster. Liverpool is a club in transition, both on and off the pitch. Its current owners, John Henry (owner of the Boston Red Sox) and crew, are still undoing the financial damage done by the previous regime of Tom Hicks and George Gillette. Disappointing performances this season, particularly from some expensive new players has seen the team slide down the table in the league, but taking home two cups would help soothe a frustrated fanbase.
Both managers have a lot to play for in this match: Dalglish is trying to salvage something from the wreckage of a poor season; di Matteo is interviewing for his job, whether it's at Chelsea or somewhere else.
The cynical among us will point out this match will bring together two of the best divers in the UK, even though there's not a pool anywhere around Wembley Stadium. But these two players' form is vitally important to their respective teams. Drogba is coming off the high of his performances in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona; Suarez scored a hat trick last weekend against Norwich, including this not-bad effort from about 45 yards out. But both players really rely on their supporting cast, and that's something that hasn't been consistent on either side this season.
In January 2011, Fernando Torres went from Liverpool to Chelsea for a cool 50 million pounds; Liverpool took that money and paid 35 million for Andy Carroll from Newcastle. Neither player has since lived up to the price tag -- or expectations. Torres went 903 minutes without a goal immediately following his transfer, then during this season, managed to go for 24 games without scoring. He's come good recently, hitting a hat-trick against QPR and also netting against Barcelona with a sharp finish reminiscent of his past glory days. Carroll's season has been a disappointing one, both in terms of goals but also overall performance, with far too much inconsistency. He's capable of great things, like scoring the winning goals in the closing minutes of Liverpool's semi-final against Everton, but shows it far too infrequently.
It's possible neither Torres nor Carroll will start, such has been the unpredictability of their performances this season. Both are capable of the sublime, but also of the ridiculous.
* * *
This match is a tough one to call; Chelsea appears to have the slight edge, but like Liverpool, their inconsistency makes it far from a sure bet. The main issues for the Blues will be how they set up in attack, and how the center of their defense copes with Liverpool. I'd suspect to see Drogba as the center forward with Juan Mata and Torres on either side of him, but di Matteo could overlook Torres for Daniel Sturridge. At center back, both David Luiz and Gary Cahill are out injured, so John Terry will likely be paired with Branislav Ivanovic, or perhaps Jose Bosingwa. The prospect of a stand-in center back should have Suarez seeing goals.
Liverpool's team selection is hard to call, thanks to Dalglish's managerial "style". He plays favorites, which could mean Jamie Carragher keeps his run of cup games in the side, despite the imperviousness of the Martin Skrtel-Daniel Agger pairing at center back. The side I'd like to see would have Jonjo Shelvey in midfield with Jay Spearing in the middle, and Bellamy and Downing on the wings, but I suspect I might get 2 of those at most. Key for me is if Gerrard is able to play higher up the field towards Suarez, since this appears to be the winning combination for Liverpool.
My prediction: Liverpool 47, Chelsea 1 (I am a Liverpool fan, in case you haven't figured that out. I hope Fernando Torres gets a serious bout of explosive diarrhea before the match, John Terry disappears in a cloud of self-importance and Didier Drogba takes a dive into a wrinkle in the space-time continuum).
Or it goes to penalties.
*For the uninitiated, the FA Cup is a knockout competition that runs in parallel to the English league season. It's the oldest soccer competition in the world, and is open to a huge number of teams in England, from Premier League sides down to amateur teams of a certain level. Historically it was the most important trophy in England, even more so than a league championship, but it has lost some of its luster recently. It still, however, is a prestigious title to take and a major win for any team.