By Liam Twomey
It seems bizarre now to think that, a decade ago, an FA Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool would likely have been seen as little more than just that.
Back then, there was little to suggest pitting one of English football’s fallen giants against one of its enduring pretenders would ever yield a rivalry of note.
There has, of course, traditionally been a conflict of stereotypes; of the lazy, unrefined Scouser versus the pretentious, soft Kings Roadian – ignorance borne out of the north-south divide – but such misguided perceptions have largely been dismissed in recent times.
Chelsea v Liverpool also has none of the geographical proximity of Arsenal v Tottenham, none of the decades of social and economic history which feed Liverpool v Manchester United, and none of the bitter religious undertones which plague Rangers v Celtic.
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Saturday will be the 31st time the two sides have met in the last seven years – an average of almost four and a half matches per season. Of these, 10 have come in the Champions League, an enduring theme in this most modern of rivalries.
On the last day of the 2002-03 season, Liverpool arrived in west London for a match which would decide who earned the final qualification spot for Europe’s elite club competition. In a gross underestimate, the media at the time dubbed it ‘the £20million match’.
Chelsea won a tense and nervy encounter 2-1. For the Merseysiders, defeat was a disappointing setback. For their opponents, however, victory changed everything.
Barely two months later Roman Abramovich took the reins at Stamford Bridge, and the Blues were transformed almost overnight from Premier League also-rans to genuine contenders.
The Russian’s billions bought quality, glamour and Jose Mourinho. Mourinho brought trophies, and lots of them. All of them, in fact, except one - but it was surely only a matter of time. Until Liverpool, in the highly capable hands of Rafael Benitez, tore up the script.
Having already seen off Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Chelsea had their Champions League dreams shattered at Anfield on an infamous night in May 2005. Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ became a sticking point for Blues fans frustrated at their opponents’ perceived negativity, and a badge of honour for Reds supporters on a cup run which ended with the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.
Mourinho and Benitez fanned the flames of discord with snipes and jibes while Chelsea continued to labour, in vain, for the one trophy their owner prizes above all others.
Liverpool were once again their bane in 2007, though Blues fans took bitter pleasure in witnessing Milan’s revenge in the final in Athens. Revenge was achieved, minus the Special One, after two madcap encounters in 2008, but John Terry and the Luzhniki Stadium's penalty spot gave the Red half of Merseyside its own opportunity for schadenfreude.
Champions League battles are the soul of this rivalry because, in a sense, it is the competition which has come to define both clubs – Liverpool for the number of times they have triumphed in it, Chelsea for the number of times they have found a way not to.
Yet there is plenty of other ammunition. In almost every sense, Liverpool and Chelsea identify themselves as polar opposites. When they collide, it is not simply a clash between two giants. It is the established elite versus the nouveau riche, the club which sings about where it has come from against the club which boasts about where it is going.
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The footballing benefits of that deal have so far been minimal for both sides, but the more general fallout has allowed the personal enmity between the clubs to flourish, even as the competitive rivalry has waned with a shared decline in fortunes on the pitch.
Chelsea are no longer top-four mainstays. Liverpool are not even in the discussion. Both are now in the business of relying on cup glories to paper over worrying long-term cracks.
But in spite of this, it is clear the atmosphere of antipathy created by Mourinho and Benitez is in rude health, with the baton taken on by the fans themselves.
The old generals may have gone, but the war is still raging. Doubters need look no further than the disgusting disregard for the Hillsborough silence shown by a minority of Chelsea supporters prior to their FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham.
At this stage, it is hard to say whether it is optimism or folly to hope for better behaviour when the two sets of fans meet at Wembley on Saturday.
It might be wiser, though, to settle for the expectation that, in spite of everything else, we should see a good game of football.
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