It’s the FA Cup final this weekend between two of the most successful teams in this competition. In the red corner, with 12 FA Cups to their name, Arsenal of North London. And in the blue corner, with a not too shabby tally of seven FA Cups, Chelsea of West London. A London derby should make for a hard-fought final with a highly-charged atmosphere, unlike several attritional games we’ve seen over the years.
One of my earliest memories of the FA Cup does not relate to Arsenal, but rather their fierce rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. The season was 2006-07 and after two consecutive Premier league titles, it was the third year of Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea tenure. Contrary to the popularly accepted notion that Mourinho loses it in year three, it wasn’t always like that. After all, Chelsea did win the League Cup and the FA Cup with Jose Mk I in his third season. Coming back to my original point, the game I’m talking about is the FA Cup sixth round replay at White Hart Lane (in the days when it was lovingly called Three Point Lane).
The game at The Bridge ended in a 3-3 draw and the replay was won 2-1 by Chelsea, on their way to The New Wembley. Luminaries such as Shaun Wright-Phillips, Salomon Kalou, Hossam Ghaly and Steed Malbranque were on the pitch at some point, which would be unimaginable just a decade later. But there was also another player – someone who had been at the receiving end of a lot of criticism from his manager and who was the highest paid player in the league at (just) £130,000 per week – Andriy Shevchenko. I have fond memories of this game not just because Chelsea won and reached the semi-final, but also because of the pivotal role played by Shevchenko. Against Spurs, Shevchenko scored, if you could forgive the hyperbole, one of the most beautiful goals in FA Cup history. An under-fire player delivering on the big occasion, and how! The magic of the cup, anyone?
The goal itself was poetry in motion. Shevchenko, as was the norm, had been shunted to the wing, with Drogba leading the line. Receiving the ball on the right, Shevchenko raced towards the 18-yard box, with the aforementioned Malbranque trying to keep pace with him. As he entered the box, Shevchenko came to a sudden halt and shifted the ball to his left foot just as Malbranque realized he’d left his mark behind him. Before the fullback could complete his U-turn, the Ukrainian striker had let go of a measured, curling effort that Lee Young-pyo tried his utmost to block, but just couldn’t. The shot sailed over the defenders assembling inside the box, hit the intersection of the post and crossbar, and nestled inside the Spurs net, all in slow-motion.
It took a couple of seconds for Drogba, waiting in the box and expecting a cross, to realize what had just happened. But Shevchenko knew. He wheeled away in celebration, arm held high, waving his index finger in a circle, reminding us all of his AC Milan heyday when he was the most lethal striker in Europe, bar none. At Chelsea, those days were few and far between, although this one was certainly up there with the best of them. Wright-Phillips scored just a few minutes later and Robbie Keane grabbed a consolation goal for one of his boyhood clubs, bringing the result to 2-1 in favour of the Blues.
As we get closer to the final, here’s hoping one of the many players capable of producing a moment of magic step up and deliver on the big stage. If an ageing 31-year old supposedly past his prime can do it despite his own manager’s misgivings, Alexis Sanchez or Eden Hazard should have no trouble gracing the final and making it another memorable occasion. Preferably, for the Blues.