LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea’s remarkable turnaround since Roberto Di Matteo took over as interim coach has taken them to the brink of a cup double after they beat a disappointing Liverpool side 2-1 with goals from Ramires and Didier Drogba on Saturday.
Their victory at Wembley Stadium in a match they dominated for the first hour keeps the London side’s momentum going for what could be an even greater triumph in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in two weeks’ time.
A season that seemed destined to end in failure under coach Andre Villas-Boas could now finish as the most successful in the club’s history if they become European champions.
Andy Carroll’s 64th minute strike for Liverpool brought the game to life for the last half-an-hour after Chelsea appeared to be coasting to a seventh FA Cup success and their fourth in six seasons but Di Matteo’s side hung on to claim the spoils.
The club’s campaign has been transformed under Di Matteo - who never lost at Wembley as a player - with just two defeats in 18 matches although he is still only their caretaker boss.
“I‘m fortunate enough to have played for the club and won the trophy and today I led the players out ... not many people get that chance,” said a beaming Di Matteo.
This victory and another against Bayern in Munich on May 19 would make it seem almost impossible for Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich to give the job to anyone else although with Chelsea, as ever, the future is uncertain.
The stakes are high because if Chelsea do not win the Champions League they might miss out on playing in the competition altogether next season since they look likely to finish outside the top four in the Premier League.
Italian Di Matteo, an FA Cup winner as a player with Chelsea in 1997 and 2000, celebrated an ultimately nail-biting win on the pitch with his team who have rediscovered their self-belief and confidence since he took over.
However, he refused to be drawn on his future, telling reporters: “It is not an issue. I am very pleased with my position until the end of the season and then we will make a decision that is best for the club and we will all respect it.”
He graciously added: “AVB should get some credit as he started our run in the FA Cup.”
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish lamented his side’s slow start to the match and thought his players were naive.
He said: “For the first hour they were better than us. Maybe a bit of naivety from our point of view or experience from theirs but if we have had more of the game with the pace we showed later, we might have had a better score.”
Chelsea weathered Liverpool’s fightback and left back Ashley Cole, who had already won the FA Cup six times, more than any other player, and now has seven winners medals told reporters Di Matteo had given the team their confidence back.
“Roberto always had belief in us and trusted us to play our game. That is exactly what we have done in training and on the pitch we have shown a fantastic team spirit and now we think we can win every game we play. He has done that for us.”
Di Matteo, unlike Villas-Boas, trusted the old guard of Drogba, skipper John Terry and Frank Lampard to rescue Chelsea’s season, and it was no coincidence that the trio were the first in line to lift the trophy for their ecstatic fans at the end.
For Terry, it was a special moment. He became the first man for 130 years to captain a team to four FA Cup wins, and the first to do so with one club.
Banned from playing in the Champions League final, Terry gave a captain’s performance on the pitch with a very important block on a late Carroll drive.
Chelsea showed all the inner strength built up over the last decade during the closing period of a game they looked to have under complete control after Ramires put them ahead in the 11th minute and Drogba made it 2-0 with a sweet strike in the 52nd.
Drogba earned himself a place in the FA Cup record books by becoming the first player to score in four finals. He is now one of four men who stand one goal behind all-time top scorer Ian Rush who leads the list with five.
Rush was in the crowd and looked visibly morose as Chelsea outplayed his old club for an hour, but at least in the end Liverpool went down with all guns blazing.
They came close to forcing extra time after 83 minutes when Carroll had a great chance to equalize with a powerful header but Chelsea keeper Petr Cech clawed the ball out just before it crossed the line, pushing it on to the crossbar.
Three of the four Chelsea players banned for the Champions League final played significant parts in the win.
Ramires scored the opening goal, Terry gave a solid all-round performance and Branislav Ivanovic thwarted Liverpool’s best chance of the first half when he made a crucial block to stop a fierce drive from Craig Bellamy.
Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles, who will also miss the European Cup showpiece, came on as a late substitute.
Liverpool offered little else before halftime and it seemed they were dead and buried when Drogba struck a low angled drive for his customary Wembley goal seven minutes after the break.
The Ivorian has scored in all eight of his competitive matches at Wembley and his latest goal at the national stadium was a crisply struck effort that went through Martin Skrtel’s legs giving Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina no chance.
Liverpool were revived by Carroll’s fine goal which came when he turned Terry in the box and lashed the ball past Cech to add to his goal in the semi-final against Everton at Wembley three weeks ago which helped repay some of the 35 million pounds ($56.55 million) Liverpool paid Newcastle in January 2011.
Carroll arrived when Fernando Torres moved from Anfield to Stamford Bridge for 50 million pounds but the Spaniard, who has shown glimpses of his old scoring form in recent weeks, was left to watch from the bench as an unused substitute on Saturday.
($1 = 0.6189 British pounds)
Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris