Manchester City came out on top against Chelsea to win the Carabao Cup final 4-3 on penalties. With nothing to separate the two sides after 120 minutes, it was Raheem Sterling who stepped up with ice-cold composure to score the winning penalty. However, the game was overshadowed by a few minutes of madness in extra-time when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted.
Being played just two weeks after City hit Chelsea for six at the Etihad, the final proved to be a far cagier affair. Under the management of Maurizio Sarri, it has been difficult to predict which Chelsea will turn up and there have been occasions on which it has looked like ‘Sarriball’ is finally starting to resonate with his squad.
Yet, recent bruising defeats at the hands of Bournemouth and the two Manchester clubs have been major setbacks. At Wembley on Sunday however, Chelsea’s setup was well-organised. They opted to soak up pressure from their opponents and then counter-attack. Eden Hazard’s blistering pace and dribbling ability made him an important outlet. For City, who so often break teams down with ease, chances were few and far between.
Sergio Aguero did have the ball in the net on 54 minutes, but the Argentinian was ruled offside, with the decision confirmed to be correct by VAR. As the clock kept ticking and the score remained 0-0, a sense of belief appeared to grow among the Chelsea players. N’Golo Kante went close to scoring after 66 minutes, firing over the bar from ten yards out. Ultimately, neither side could break the deadlock in regulation time.
In extra-time, it was City who were doing most of the attacking. Raheem Sterling threatened on multiple occasions down the right-hand side. With three minutes remaining, Antonio Rüdiger’s slip allowed Aguero to let fly just outside Chelsea’s area.
His effort was saved by Kepa down to his left, but the Chelsea goalkeeper injured himself in the process, suffering from cramp. Seeing this, Sarri told Kepa’s understudy Willy Caballero to get ready to come on. Although the motivation for the substitution was Kepa’s injury, Caballero’s impressive record in penalty shoot-outs, as well as his stint at City not so long ago, made the substitution also appear tactically astute.
However, as the fourth official’s board went up to announce the substitution, Kepa waved to his boss in protest, insisting he was fit to continue. An incredible scene unfolded, with Sarri clearly enraged on the touchline. It was a war of wills, which Kepa won. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper refused to come off when told to, and in doing so completely undermined his manager’s authority. Few football fans will have ever witnessed anything like it before.
In the shootout, Kepa went on to save Leroy Sané’s penalty but was unable to keep out City’s other four. Jorginho and David Luiz didn’t help their keeper by misfiring for Chelsea. Raheem Sterling dispatched the winning penalty with a daring confidence, finding what he called “top bins”.
At his press conference after the game, Sarri played down the substitution incident: “It was a big misunderstanding because I understood that he had a cramp and I did not want my keeper to penalties in that physical condition”.
Kepa also took to social media to state that there was a misunderstanding between technical area and pitch, reaffirming that he has “full respect for the coach and his authority”. Sarri’s decision in the following days to fine Kepa a week’s wages and drop him in Chelsea’s midweek win against Tottenham may suggest that what occurred was a lot more than just a misunderstanding.
Indeed, such an unprecedented disregard for a manager’s authority has provoked shock in the football world. But what may be equally as striking is the actions of Kepa’s team-mates during the incident. At the time only David Luiz approached Kepa to discuss what was going on.
Club captain Cesar Azpilcueta chose not to involve himself in the situation and shied away from passing any judgement post-match, explaining that he was on the other side of the pitch.
It is no secret that Chelsea have a history of sending managers on their way when they do not produce the goods. No manager has served for three full seasons since José Mourinho’s first spell at the club came to an end in 2007. This creates an unstable culture in which players see themselves outlasting their managers at the club.
When pressure mounts on the manager, it may make more sense for players to swim with the tide. Currently sitting in sixth position in the Premier League with the Europa League as their only chance of silverware this season, there can be no doubts that Sarri finds himself under pressure to prove he is the man to take Chelsea forward.
With a two-window transfer ban recently being imposed on Chelsea, Sarri will have to win over his current set of players otherwise his days will be numbered. What we saw at Wembley on Sunday may well be an indication of the latter.
As for Manchester City, securing their first trophy of the 2018/19 campaign under their belt will be a massive boost of confidence as they stride through to the home straight of the footballing season. Pep Guardiola will not yet entertain the idea of winning the quadruple, but at this stage, there may well be a feeling of ‘one down, three to go’ for City fans.
With a trip to Bournemouth and the return leg against Schalke in the Champions League to play before the upcoming international break, the sky blues will be looking to keep up the momentum as they fire on all cylinders.