Rewind to the 2019 League Cup final – Manchester City vs Chelsea. The clock in extra time was ticking down, with penalties looking like the likely way this match would be decided. Penalty specialist and former City player, Willy Caballero, on the bench was ready to come on with Kepa being treated by club doctors.
That’s when it all went wayward and what would make the name Kepa Arrizabalaga taste bitter for some Chelsea fans. Frantically waving his finger towards the Chelsea technical area and Maurizo Sarri, Kepa was adamant he was okay to carry on and stay on the pitch.
Even Blues legend Gianfranco Zola, who was an assistant coach at the time, went into the technical area, arms wide to try and get him to come off. Referee John Moss in the end was an intermediary between him and Sarri. ‘Player power’ it seemed had won and Kepa stayed on the pitch.
The way he handled the situation, going against Sarri and in turn not allowing a fellow teammate to come on the pitch created a melee that Chelsea simply didn’t need in a final – especially just before a penalty shootout. Kepa was already under a lot of pressure to step up after the departure of Thibaut Courtois to Real Madrid and that too with a hefty £72million price tag on him.
But his perceived stubbornness to stay on the pitch instead of Caballero being allowed to come on wasn’t helped by the team’s eventual loss to Manchester City in the end. It pushed Chelsea fans over the edge and a loss of patience with the new recruit. A question lingered after the loss – would Chelsea have won if Caballero was in goal?
It was a moment that would go on to dominate his career at Chelsea, less than a year after signing. Social media was having a field day with clips of the antics. Chelsea fans put their heads in their hands and rivals couldn’t help but laugh.
It was all so unexpected and the type of ‘drama’ you don’t want in a game.
His consequent performances after the final were below the standard you’d expect from a top goalkeeper. During the 2019/20 season, he kept only eight clean sheets and conceded 47 goals. This was a significant decline in performance, compared to his first season where he kept 14 clean sheets and conceded 39 goals.
In a piece he penned for The Players Tribune this year, Kepa explained his side of the story from the final: “Manchester City were dominating the game in extra time and there was barely any time left until penalties. After making a save, I felt something in my leg and I called for the physio to make sure it was nothing. Above all, though, I wanted to make sure that we as a team could catch our breath.”
Continuing to describe why he did what he did, he said: “Suddenly, I saw that the coach, Maurizio Sarri, had sent Willy Caballero to warm up. He thought I couldn’t go on. My intention, right or wrong, had only been to waste time to help the team. I didn’t have any serious problem that was going to keep me from continuing to play… I should have come off, and I’m sorry I didn’t.
“I was wrong, and I am sorry for everyone who was involved: for Maurizio Sarri, who it seemed like I had undermined in public; for Willy, a teammate and a great professional; and for all my teammates and Chelsea fans who had to put up with everything — all the noise that was generated during the game and then in the days after.”
It’s very easy to forget that football players are human beings. His piece conveys the complexities of what happened and the remorse he felt after his actions, but also how it impacted him as a person: “When I picked up my phone in the dressing room after the League Cup final, I realised that I had become worldwide news. For the next three or four days, it didn’t stop. It was overwhelming. And clearly, most people who saw the pictures thought that I had disrespected Maurizio.
“I felt misunderstood, because it had never been my intention to snub the coach. I had only tried to tell him I was O.K… I tried to explain this to the press, but I couldn’t.”
Edouard Mendy’s signing to the club in 2020 from Rennes left Kepa cast aside and out of favour. With few opportunities to prove himself again and get back in form, he became a footnote last season in a Chelsea side which won the Champions League. Although you’ve got to give him credit for not sulking or causing a fuss about being on the bench since Mendy’s signing – it was hard to see a way back for Kepa in any serious capacity.
The Super Cup victory over Villareal has possibly changed the trajectory of how things could be for Kepa moving forward. It may not be redemption for him personally, but it will firmly close the book on the turn of events that unfolded in 2019.
He stepped up, coming off the bench in extra time, and met by a gracious Mendy, who gave him a double thumbs up on his way off the pitch. The post-match interview Kepa and Mendy both did together for BT Sport shows a bond and togetherness that will only strengthen Kepa’s role in this Chelsea side. It’s wholesome content that was nice to see for all Chelsea fans – with Mendy praising Kepa, keeping his arm around the Spaniard.
It was Kepa’s chance to make up for the League Cup final and he did just that. Diving to his right to save Raul Albiol’s penalty. At that moment it felt that the slate had been wiped clean. A do-over if you will. From the exploits of one penalty shootout to another – villain to a hero, this will have been the break that Kepa would have been waiting for.
Redemption at last.
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Source by Football London