Once again, Leicester have made history. Some 137 years after they were founded, some 128 after they first entered the FA Cup, they have finally won it. It may be an exaggeration to say that Youri Tielemans’ goal was worth the wait, but it was the sort that deserved to determine a game of this magnitude.
A crowd of almost 22,000, the biggest in English sport for 14 months, witnessed the sweetest of strikes. Few had more reasons to savour it than Brendan Rodgers, who has often seemed a nearly man of management but who got his first major trophy in England.
For Thomas Tuchel, in contrast, this week has provided his first real setback. Chelsea have suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time in his reign. Lose to Leicester again on Tuesday and Chelsea could soon be out of the top four.
The Tuchel blueprint has been to prevail in low-scoring games where his side have had control but this time Chelsea did not keep a clean sheet. His starting XI created too few chances.
Tuchel has tended to get his selection decisions right but Chelsea’s muted display posed the question if Ben Chilwell, in particular, should have started. Their threat came late on, when Kasper Schmeichel made superb saves to tip the substitute Chilwell’s header on to the post and Mason Mount’s volley away.
The drama then saw the oldest competition decided in the newest of ways. Chilwell thought he had equalised, meeting Thiago Silva’s pass and seeing Caglar Soyuncu’s attempted clearance cannon in off him. His celebrations were euphoric, but curtailed when he was ruled fractionally offside. VAR helped Leicester win the cup.
It was frantic at the end, but Leicester got the reward they deserved. They were patient at the start and well organised, weathering the loss of the injured Jonny Evans after half an hour, and they had the better opportunities in a first half when neither side mustered a shot on target.
Tielemans had been the game’s classiest player even before he struck. It was a goal that had certain echoes of Chelsea’s first-minute opener in the 1997 final, scored by Roberto Di Matteo. Tielemans let fly from 25 yards for a spectacular goal. Chelsea complained that Ayoze Perez had handled in cutting out Reece James’ pass before Luke Thomas found Tielemans, but in vain.
Plenty of games under Tuchel have been tight and this was no exception. Many of the defining figures were defensive. Tuchel has a capacity to confound and sprang a surprise by using James as a centre-back, with Cesar Azpilicueta outside him as a wing-back. If the plan was to use the youngster’s pace against Jamie Vardy, he distinguished himself with an early block from the Leicester striker’s shot.
It highlighted another of Tuchel’s choices: Timothy Castagne had escaped behind Marcos Alonso to cross and Chelsea had plumped for the Spaniard instead of quicker Chilwell.
While Kelechi Iheanacho, the hero of Leicester’s quarter- and semi-final wins, was quiet, they had a set-piece threat. Soyuncu scored with a header at Manchester United on Tuesday and had two chances to provide a sequel but headers from Tielemans’ and Thomas’ free kicks were off target.
Chelsea, meanwhile, struggled to fashion chances. Mount found space between the lines and that produced their first effort, angled just past the post. Wayward finishing has been a theme of Timo Werner’s Chelsea career and he blazed a shot way over Schmeichel’s bar.
His unfortunate start continued when his glancing header took the ball away from Azpilicueta when the unmarked captain seemed to have a simple finish. On a day when Tuchel made a point by not even putting the out-of-favour Tammy Abraham on the bench, Chelsea lacked a finisher.
Alonso mustered the belated first effort on target with a header straight at Schmeichel but Leicester showed solidity. Then Chelsea, initially risk averse, ended up throwing on attackers as Olivier Giroud and Callum Hudson-Odoi joined Havertz and Pulisic on the pitch, though Chilwell exerted more of an impact than any of them.
Rodgers summoned Wes Morgan, the captain of the 2016 title winners, for a late cameo and the 37-year-old played his part in another remarkable feat as somehow Leicester hung on. Finally, they have won the FA Cup.