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Fine Margins—and a 120th-Minute Goalkeeper Substitution—Decide League Cup Final

Chelsea subbed off starting keeper Édouard Mendy in favor of Kepa ahead of a penalty shootout that lasted 11 rounds, and it may have proved to be the difference in Liverpool’s Carabao Cup victory.

Kepa Arrizabalaga has a curious history with penalty shootouts and the League Cup final. Three years ago, he refused to be substituted for Willy Caballero before penalties. It was an act that, at the time, was largely seen as petulance, particularly as Chelsea then lost to Manchester City, although it later emerged that the coach Maurizio Sarri had thought he was suffering from a significant injury.

On Sunday he was brought on as a penalty specialist just before the end of extra time. His record from penalties is much better than that of Édouard Mendy, but Mendy had had a fine game and earlier this month had played for Senegal as it won the Africa Cup of Nations by beating Egypt in a penalty shootout. As it turned out, Kepa didn’t save a single one of the 11 penalties Liverpool ended up taking and then smashed his own kick high over the bar to end the penalty shootout at 11-10, following a goalless match.  

For Liverpool it was a record ninth League Cup success, and a first victory in a domestic cup competition in England for Jürgen Klopp. For Chelsea, whose form has been wobbling despite its success in the Club World Cup earlier this month, defeat added to the sense of unease around the club, much of which has little to do with football. 

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But although the in-form side ended up winning, there was little to choose between the sides on the day; this was a game of remarkable quality and a 22-penalty shootout was a fitting reflection of how tight it had been. When two teams are as good as this and as well-prepared as this, the margins can sometimes be impossibly fine.

It was 17 years ago to the day that Chelsea had won its first trophy under Roman Abramovich by beating Liverpool in the League Cup final, a fact that seemed to take on enhanced relevance when, on Saturday, Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich released a statement saying he was giving “stewardship and care” of the club to the trustees of Chelsea’s foundation.

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Exactly what that means when Abramovich remains as the sole shareholder is far from clear, and on Sunday it emerged that the trustees had, at least temporarily, rejected the move until various questions had been answered. Their reluctance was seemingly based in concerns they were being used as part of a cosmetic move to try to ensure the club is not subject to potential sanctions against Russian oligarchs. Abramovich’s position may remain unclear, and a tepid club statement on Ukraine angered many, but Chelsea played its part in the pregame demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine, and there were numerous Ukrainian flags on show among both sets of fans.

Although Liverpool had dominated possession for long passages of the game, there were chances at both ends and, after the substitutions of Sadio Mané and Luis Díaz, a distinct sense that the momentum was shifting towards Chelsea. Caoimhín Kelleher, preferred in goal to Allison as the regular League Cup keeper, had made a stunning early block to keep out a close-range Christian Pulisic effort, and that was then matched by an equally improbable Mendy save to turn a Mané shot over the bar as he jumped onto a rebound.

Mason Mount missed glorious opportunities on either side of halftime, putting one just wide and the second against the base of the post. Mohamed Salah, capitalizing on a weak Mendy clearance, slightly duffed his attempted chip, allowing Thiago Silva to get back. Then Joël Matip had a header ruled out from a free kick as Virgil van Dijk was judged offside as he made a blocking run at the back post. In all, Mendy made a string of exceptional saves. Kelleher denied Lukaku with his feet. Havertz, twice, and Lukaku had goals ruled out for offside. It was thrilling, frantic stuff. This may have finished 0-0, but it was an extraordinarily open contest for a game of this magnitude.

Chelsea, out of the Premier League title race, faces Luton Town in the FA Cup this week and, 2-0 up from the first leg, should finish off Lille to reach the quarterfinal of the Champions League. There has perhaps not quite been the progress it would have hoped for this season, but its biggest issues now are far more to do with Abramovich’s ownership than with Thomas Tuchel’s management or an occasional sterility in possession.

Liverpool is playing superbly and is still in all three other competitions; the League Cup could be the start of a truly glorious season.

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