The most notable element of a disjointed goalless first half in Saturday’s FA Cup final was the organic soundtrack.
At the Leicester end of the 21,000-strong crowd, there was a throaty collective roar when Kasper Schmeichel completed a routine catch from a right-wing corner. Referee Michael Oliver had plenty of unflattering appraisals of his work and a wildly off-target drive from Chelsea forward Timo Werner drew hearty guffaws.
There aren’t really buttons on a fake crowd noise soundboard for any of that stuff.
The most significant crowd any of these footballers had played in front of for 14 months also seemed to have an impact on some adrenaline levels and resulting performances.
Leicester great Gary Lineker, so poignantly emotional after his boyhood club closed out an unforgettable 1-0 win, has enjoyed an enduring post-career link up with Walkers. The Foxes’ current main goal threat, Kelechi Iheanacho, played like a punter who’d collected 10 crisp packets and won the chance to try playing at Wembley.
Iheanacho entered the game as the joint top scorer in this season’s FA Cup and with 13 goals in his past 12 outings across all competitions. It counted for nothing, the Nigeria international’s touch as heavy as his legs, while muddled decision making did nothing to lengthen the short leash Antonio Rudiger kept him on.
Werner draws another blank
Werner would give plenty for some of Iheanacho’s prolific form, the type he enjoyed only last season at RB Leipzig. Here, we again witnessed the Chelsea version – tireless probing running to push the opposition defence deep and prescribe Jonny Evans a swift return to the treatment table.
But Werner snatched at his shots, inadvertently touched a goalscoring chance away from captain Cesar Azpilicueta and then saw Wesley Fofana hurl himself into back-to-back blocks. When the ball broke clear, Werner threw himself at Luke Thomas with the same gusto but none of the expertise to be booked.
The occasion was encouraging commitment, anxiety and a dearth of quality, with the notable exception of Mason Mount.
Chelsea’s playmaker pirouetting under a high ball to stun a volleyed pass into Azpilicueta’s path was easily the most beautiful piece of play before the interval. His shot from the return ball was deflected wide by Fofana, who seemed to take any attempt to test Schmeichel as a personal affront.
Azpilicueta found himself forward so often because he featured at wing-back, with the more naturally attacking Reece James on the right of Chelsea’s back three.
The Blues began their run to the final with a victory over Morecambe and, to paraphrase the Lancashire town’s favourite son, it felt like Thomas Tuchel had selected all the correct right-sided defenders but not necessarily in the right order.
In reality, however, the move came to look inspired, at least defensively as James effectively shackled Jamie Vardy’s livewire running.
The opening stages of the second half, Leicester finally managed to peg their opponents back. James still dealt with everything in immaculate fashion until, well, he didn’t.
The 21-year-old botched a routine pass, hitting it at Ayoze Perez. Thomas snaffled the loose ball and Youri Tielemans straightened his run towards the Chelsea box.
Like Evans earlier, Thiago Silva’s combination of old head and old legs persuaded him to let his opponent advance towards goal. Unlike Werner, though, Tielemans is a supreme technician at the top of his game.
The Belgium midfielder unleashed an unerring 25-yard firecracker into the top corner. Some thunder to go with the Wembley rain. Behind the goal, bedlam. Limbs. A cup final goal for the ages.
Tuchel decided to act and a pair of double substitutions followed, including former Leicester full-back Ben Chilwell’s introduction. His every touch was booed, until he got his head to a cross from N’Golo Kante – the Foxes’ 2015-16 title-winning hero, who endured no barracking.
That moment was one for a sharp intake of breath but Schmeichel plunged to his right for a stunning save. His later stop from Mount was even better.
Captain Morgan’s VAR cocktail
The dying minutes meant time for another of Claudio Ranieri’s old stagers as Wes Morgan came on for his first action since December, immediately barking instructions. The band, or what remains of it, were back together.
When he hoisted the Premier League trophy aloft five years ago, Morgan or none of the rest of us lived in the altered reality of VAR. But it saved him here after Chilwell tore off in villainous celebration, his attempt having cannoned in off his old captain after Caglar Soyuncu had tried to hack it clear. The replays showed a tight but obvious offside.
Morgan, Schmeichel and Vardy have a first FA Cup to go with their club’s first league title. They are sporting immortals of the east midlands.
The Leicester faithful also have a new trophy-winning hero in Tielemans after his majestic man-of-the-match showing. Following Eden Hazard in 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in 2019, another Belgium playmaker scored in an FA Cup final victory. A niche and far more palatable new normal.
And that was the best thing about the rash tackles, the blocks, the screamer, the bedlam, the shredded nerves, the drama, the villains and the heroes. The wonderful atmosphere in which it unfolded was all so instantly and beautifully normal.