LONDON — It was the only fair way for Sunday’s mad EFL Cup final to end. Kepa Arrizabalaga completely misjudging the arc of his shot at redemption, another Chelsea penalty shootout in which he was the chief protagonist ending with a runners-up medal.
Three years before, he had refused to come off the pitch as Maurizio Sarri pleaded with him to make way for Willy Caballero. Now, he loomed over the contest for a different reason. Thomas Tuchel had hinted that the Spaniard, who had saved four penalties already this season — and in the process helped get Chelsea to Wembley — could be called upon for the shootout.
There he sat in the second half of extra time, Chekhov’s fifth substitute. An League Cup final this dramatic could not end without Kepa’s narrative value being fully exploited.
That it was as he ended a streak of 21 converted penalties, blazing high into the Liverpool supporters. Their flares were lit almost as soon as the ball had left Kepa’s boot. This time they had not acted in undue haste.
For a time, this magnificent game seemed like it might never end. The flares had first erupted in the 67th minute after Joel Matip had converted an expertly taken free-kick routine from the right flank, Sadio Mane peeling off to the back post to flick a Trent Alexander-Arnold delivery into the mixer. The jubilation was swiftly cut short as Stuart Attwell was instructed to check the VAR monitor, where he concluded that Virgil van Dijk’s blocking of Reece James had been too robust.
Chelsea might have been thanking VAR at that moment. By the final whistle, they would be cursing its intervention. Twice Kai Havertz thought he had once again come up trumps for Tuchel in a final. Between then, substitute Romelu Lukaku found himself adjudged offside by a fraction of an armpit, one of his best finishes since returning to the Premier League scrubbed from the history books.
Those ghost goals did not sate this game’s appetite for drama. Scrub them from memory and it is still baffling how this game ended 0-0. As early as the third minute, Christian Pulisic was spurning a dream chance, hitting Kai Havertz’s cross straight at Caoimhin Kelleher. Anywhere else and it was 1-0. Twice after Mason Mount missed chances that were no less inviting.
Meanwhile at the other end, Edouard Mendy was keeping Liverpool at bay, not necessarily singlehandedly — Thiago Silva, N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic were all varying degrees of excellent ahead of him — but you suspect if that he had been required to do so, he might well have. When he could have pushed Naby Keita’s shot further toward safety, he was up quick enough to deny Sadio Mane at the rebound. That was magnificent. His sprawling parry from Virgil van Dijk in added time of normal time was even better. Not for nothing did he get this column’s vote for man of the match.
He had the hot hand. Tuchel should have trusted that.
“No blame of course,” said the Chelsea manager post-match. “We took the decision like we did last time in a penalty shootout because Kepa is training with the players on penalties every day on the training ground. Everybody knows how difficult he is to score against.
“Unfortunately, he could not save any. The penalties were brilliantly taken.
“I take the decisions when I take the decisions. I cannot re-judge my decisions when I know what’s the outcome. We all don’t know what would have happened if Edu had stayed on the pitch.
“No blame on him. Blame on me. I’m the guy who takes the decisions. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.”
Kepa was fearless, his inability to deny Liverpool as much down to the power and precision with which Klopp’s side struck the ball from 12 yards out. The substitute goalkeeper could take a step to his left, baiting Van Dijk to strike it in that direction, and still not get close to the ball. Had he got a fingertip on it, he may well have found that digit flying into the back of the net too.
It would perhaps be unfair to cast Kepa, the manager who brought him on or anyone else from this wonderful piece. Its hero, however, was clear. Kelleher dispatched his winning penalty with the aplomb of a striker. Klopp had followed his heart in picking the Irish youngster over the Brazilian veteran Alisson, one of the best goalkeeper’s in the world. He seemed all the more delighted that it had paid off.
“Even in professional football there should be space for some sentiment,” said the Liverpool manager. “Caoimhin Kelleher is a young boy, plays in all the competition, what do I do? I am two things: A professional manager and a human being. And the human being won. He deserves it.
“At the training center, we have a wall that all goalkeepers are on who won something and Caoimhin can go on it — that’s how it should be — absolutely great.” They will certainly not be short of pictures of Kelleher to hang on the walls. As the Liverpool players moved on to celebrate with their travelling fans, Jordan Henderson instructed the 23-year-old to stay behind in front of the photographers, to drink in the moment when he was a star.
It is as effective a reflection of what makes this Liverpool side so successful as any. Refreshingly ego free, this team that lives for the success of others. They make for worthy winners of such a fantastic game.