Everyone looks tired. Liverpool counterattack in the closing minutes and Trent Alexander-Arnold (41 games for club and country this season) can barely puff his way over the halfway line. In stoppage time, Riyad Mahrez (45 games) runs at Andy Robertson (46 games), who tries and forlornly fails to keep pace with him. Bernardo Silva (49 games) looks exhausted as he scores Manchester City’s second goal. On the touchline a world-weary Pep Guardiola – who has barely left his bench all half – grimaces as if suddenly contemplating the solemn and unappetising prospect of extra time.
Even as the final whistle arrives to seal Liverpool’s triumph, there is no great celebration, no great delight, and no great anguish either. John Stones and Phil Foden sink to their knees. Liverpool’s players gather each other into pained embraces: partly in satisfaction, partly in relief and partly just to hold each other up. Gingerly and groggily, both teams acknowledge their fans and trudge down the tunnel. An ice bath, a protein pot, a bus ride, a charter flight, and then bed. There’s training in the morning. Manchester United come to Anfield on Tuesday and Brighton to the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday. We move.
And naturally, all of this will soon be forgotten. The written record will simply show that Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-2 to reach the 2022 FA Cup final. It won’t show that City were still recovering from a bruising, attritional Champions League second leg against Atlético Madrid on Wednesday, while Liverpool were able to rest the majority of their first team at home against Benfica.
By the same token, if Liverpool fail to beat United this week, handing City a decisive advantage in the Premier League title race, nobody will remember their exertions at Wembley three days earlier. This is the brutality of elite football: you win, you lose, and how you felt at the time is of no relevance whatsoever.
Certainly none of the City squad were prepared to admit to fatigue as a reason for their haggard, careless performance here. “I’m not going to sit here and say excuses,” Jack Grealish (41 games and a shin injury) retorted to the suggestion that four high-level games in 12 days might have taken their toll. “That’s what you’re going to get when you’re at Manchester City. You’re always in competitions at the end of the season.”
Oleksandr Zinchenko (a paltry 22 games) insisted: “Everyone was ready to play. We can be tired mentally, but you have to sort out these things at this level.”
And yet teams at the peak of fitness do not keep banging the drum about player welfare, as Jürgen Klopp has been doing for most of the last few years. Coaches with a fresh and hungry squad at their disposal do not wait until the 83rd minute of a losing semi-final to make their first substitution. Mahrez was Guardiola’s one change of the game, and introduced only after Gabriel Jesus (40 games) had started limping.
Afterwards Guardiola essentially admitted that Kevin De Bruyne (41 games) was included on the bench despite not being fit to play, after a foot injury suffered against Atlético. Aymeric Laporte (43 games), Rúben Dias (39 games), Rodri (43 games) and Ilkay Gündogan (43 games) are all somewhere on the sliding scale from fatigue to collapse.
Fans of rival teams may be tempted to play the world’s smallest violin at this point. But as this season sharpens down, as Liverpool pursue their historic quadruple and City’s campaign tapers towards the biggest two prizes of all, it is the physical aspect that remains the great unknown here, the dark matter, the biggest gamble of all. Do you prioritise continuity, familiarity, rhythm? Or do you play the long game, and try to stretch out your resources as evenly and efficiently as possible?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Klopp and Guardiola have sharply differed in this respect. While Klopp has a trusted hardcore of around seven or eight first-team players – Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Joël Matip – who will start virtually all big games if fit, Guardiola has been much happier to rest and rotate all season. It probably cost him this semi-final, as a team bearing seven changes ended up being outmatched all over the pitch. Most damning of all was the decision to start the unfortunate Zack Steffen in goal: not so much an elite goalkeeper as the actor who would play an elite goalkeeper in a Hollywood football adaptation.
It was a gamble. You might be tempted to conclude that it failed. But if at some point over the next seven Premier League games Ederson (44 games) has to sprint out of his area to meet an opposition striker, then those saved legs, those miles not run, might prove the difference between a successful clearance and a straight red card. These are the margins at which teams like City and Liverpool operate these days: a game of strategies and power outputs and 4D chess, where entire campaigns can rise and fall on the data coming out of the medical department.
Then, of course, there is the mental aspect. Alisson lost his father in a tragic drowning accident last year and was unable to travel home for his funeral. Guardiola lost his mother to Covid. Zinchenko’s country is currently in the grip of an inhuman invasion. What sort of private traumas are these guys suppressing and bottling up just to be out there, on the pitch, playing at this ungodly level? What are they putting themselves through to entertain us? We will probably never know.
So perhaps the most scintillating element of this three-pronged rivalry is just how high the quality remains, even as both teams chug towards the finish, breathing on fumes, draining every last drop of energy from themselves. The pressing and the passing remain as restless and urgent as ever. The minds persist, even as the bodies protest. Everyone is tired.
And yet by some miracle, everyone is still running.