LONDON: Youri Tielemans was preparing for the FA Cup final on Saturday when he received a text message with a clear instruction: Aim for the top corner.
When the ball landed at the Leicester midfielder’s feet, 63 minutes into the 140th final, a powerful shot from 30 meters was aimed just where he had been advised.
It was a sensational way to win the FA Cup for the first time in Leicester’s 137-year history, 1-0 against Champions League finalist Chelsea.
Even sweeter than the strike was Leicester being able to celebrate in front of its own fans as Wembley Stadium hosted England’s biggest crowd — more than 20,000 who tested negative for the coronavirus — in 14 months.
“Wow, what a finish,” Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said. “I didn’t dare to celebrate because there’s always VAR.”
Not that time. Instead, the video assistant review came to Leicester’s rescue in the 89th minute to prevent Wes Morgan from a moment of heartache.
The 37-year-old club captain had been on the pitch for only seven minutes when he accidentally deflected in former teammate Ben Chilwell’s cross. But one of those marginal offsides that so irritate players and fans was detected and the roars of Leicester fans were even louder than the moment Tielemans scored.
After losing four finals — the first in 1949 at the old Wembley — Leicester’s name is finally etched onto the cup of world football’s oldest competition. The team from central England is a champion again, five years after Morgan collected the Premier League trophy.
Players — such as Chelsea duo Chilwell and N’Golo Kante — have left since that improbable 5,000-1 title triumph but Morgan and matchday captain Schmeichel are still there to celebrate again, this time in a moment tinged with sadness.
Inside the jerseys at Wembley were photos of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club’s Thai owner until he died in 2018 when his helicopter crashed in flames next to King Power Stadium.
“He is always with us, Kun Vichai,” said Schmeichel before handing the FA Cup on the field to Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who now runs the club.
Also in tribute to Vichai was a banner covering seats in the closed third tier at Wembley, with his quote, “Our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
In a game of few chances, Thiago Silva’s slack pass allowed Leicester to score. Ayoze Pérez intercepted the clearance and Luke Thomas passed across to the unmarked Tielemans to drive forward before striking from 30 yards into the top corner.
Saves from Schmeichel as much as VAR helped to preserve the lead; he used one hand to push Chilwell’s shot onto the post in the 78th and blocked Mason Mount’s volley in the 87th.
“I’ve dreamed of this since I was a child,” Schmeichel said. “The performance today — the grit and determination — I’m so proud of everyone.”
It’s far from season over for Leicester. There’s another match against Chelsea to come on Tuesday which could clinch Champions League qualification for the second time ever. Sitting third, Leicester holds a two-point lead over Chelsea.
“Today we enjoy, and tomorrow we dust ourselves down and can’t really think about this anymore,” Schmeichel said. “Chelsea are a top-class side and are going to want revenge.”
The west London club has lost consecutive FA Cup finals, with Thomas Tuchel failing just as Frank Lampard did. But Tuchel can still win the biggest prize in club football against Manchester City in the Champions League final on May 29 in Porto.
“We are disappointed and not angry with our performance,” Tuchel said.
Chelsea was a key early stop in Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers’ coaching career, with the youth team around 15 years ago. While Rodgers has won trophies in Scotland with Celtic, he fell short in English football with Watford, Swansea and Liverpool until Saturday. Now, for the first time since Harry Redknapp with Portsmouth in 2008, a British manager has picked up the FA Cup.
“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” Rodgers said. “The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today we can go and win. What a day for everyone involved with Leicester.”
Chelsea and Leicester took a knee before kickoff, which has been a feature of games in England since June as part of calls to eradicate racial injustice in society following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But there was some booing by fans against the anti-racism gesture that was largely drowned out by applause and cheers.
In the post-match celebrations, Hamza Choudhury and Wesley Fofana were wrapped in a Palestinian flag amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza.
Leeds is on for a top-half finish in its first season back in the Premier League after 16 years. A 4-0 victory over Burnley was started by Mateusz Klich curling in the opener before halftime, followed in the second half by Jack Harrison and Rodrigo’s double. Fulham, one the three sides already relegated, lost at Southampton 3-1.