LONDON — The first trophy of the English season was claimed on Sunday, and in some style, as Chelsea and Liverpool played out a Carabao Cup final for the ages at Wembley (stream a replay on ESPN+). The sides combined to put the ball in the back of the net on four occasions, only for the offside flag to go up after each instance. Yet, despite the theatrics, 120 scoreless minutes passed.
Edouard Mendy and Caoimhin Kelleher were largely the reason why. They were nothing short of superb, each keeping their team in the contest numerous times. And, in fact, the keepers would determine this final.
Kepa Arrizabalaga was introduced for the shootout, replacing Mendy in the final moments of extra-time. He and Kelleher failed to stop any of the first 20 penalty attempts, and the Liverpool keeper converted try no. 21, only for spot-kick specialist Kepa to sky his effort well over the bar to see the Reds win an 11-10 penalty shootout.
So, what can we take from Sunday’s truly epic game? Mark Ogden (Liverpool) and James Olley (Chelsea) break down the contest from both perspectives.
Jurgen Klopp has now won five trophies as Liverpool manager. In three months’ time, he could add three more and create history at the same time by becoming the first English team to achieve a quadruple of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League.
At this juncture, with so many games still to play, achieving a clean sweep of competitions appears to be a huge challenge, but the Carabao Cup penalty shootout triumph against Chelsea means that Liverpool are already a quarter of the way towards an unprecedented achievement.
Manchester United‘s treble success in 1999, when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won the league, FA Cup and Champions League, remains the high-water mark in the English game. Liverpool managed their own cup treble in 2001 by winning both domestic cups and the UEFA Cup, and Manchester City won all three domestic trophies in 2019, but nobody has ever come close to a quadruple.
Yet Liverpool now have the opportunity do it after overcoming Chelsea to win the Carabao Cup for a record ninth time.
In this game, Liverpool undoubtedly rode their luck. Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount both missed clear first-half chances to score for Chelsea before Mount hit the post early in the second half. Kai Havertz then had two goals ruled out for offside, while Romelu Lukaku had another goal chalked off despite the Chelsea forward initially appearing to be onside on video replays.
Despite the chances created by Chelsea, though, and their own failure to create enough opportunities, Liverpool still found a way to get their hands on the trophy. What about the other three competitions they can still win?
The Premier League appears the biggest mountain to climb in the weeks ahead, but having been 12 points behind City earlier this month, Liverpool are now just six behind, with a game in hand and a trip to the Etihad still to come in April. Liverpool have little margin for error in the league, but they have at least put themselves firmly back in the race.
As for the FA Cup, Klopp’s side face the Premier League’s bottom team Norwich City at Anfield in the fifth round on Wednesday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). Win that and they will be three victories from their first FA Cup since 2006.
And then there is the Champions League, the competition that Liverpool have won more times — six — than any English club. They face Internazionale at Anfield in a round-of-16 second leg on March 8 with a 2-0 aggregate lead, knowing that they will not fear any of the remaining clubs in the quarterfinal draw. Liverpool know how to progress and succeed in the Champions League, so they will believe they can win it again this season.
Winning all four trophies will require luck, though, both in terms of results and the fitness of key players. Liverpool have had good fortune in that respect this season. They have had few disruptive injuries and added winger Luis Diaz to the squad in January.
Liverpool have the depth to push hard for all four trophies. It may come down to City blocking their path in everything they still want to win, but after securing the Carabao Cup, they have three months to win another three trophies and make history.
— Mark Ogden
The best that can be said for Kepa here is that at least he continued his habit of deciding penalty shootouts.
That Kepa’s intervention — blasting the 22nd and final penalty over the crossbar to hand Liverpool an 11-10 victory — wasn’t in Chelsea’s favour is the product of a decision that, while founded in statistical logic, was nevertheless clearly at odds with what had gone before. Mendy had repelled Liverpool in the preceding 120 minutes to such an extent he was a strong favourite to be named man of the match, and he had done more than enough to earn his place in Chelsea’s goal for the shootout.
This tactic of subbing on Kepa has worked before. In August’s UEFA Super Cup final, Tuchel made the same change and Kepa saved two penalties to beat Villarreal 6-5 in a shootout.
Nobody in Chelsea’s history has saved more penalties than Kepa — 10 in total, eight in shootouts including in this season’s Carabao Cup last-16 stage against Southampton. The club’s internal data simply shows Kepa is a better shootout shot stopper than Mendy, even if the Senegal No. 1 recently proved his own skill set by saving a spot kick in the Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt.
The change felt counter-productive here, though. This hugely entertaining final was denied a single goal in two hours of football because of several factors: errant finishing, the tightest of VAR offside decisions denying Lukaku and Kelleher’s impressive display for Liverpool. However, Mendy was arguably the biggest influence on this final, justifying his selection ahead of Kepa from the outset.
Kepa had played every match on the road to Wembley, and the club have been impressed with the improvements he has made in his game in recent months, manifesting in a series of consistent displays while Mendy was engaged at AFCON last month. Yet sources have told ESPN that Chelsea will listen to offers for Kepa, and if there was any doubt over whether the 27-year-old will be encouraged to leave this summer, this Wembley showpiece removed it.
This comes three years after Kepa refused to be substituted in the 2019 Carabao Cup final minutes before a penalty shootout. If Kepa does leave England at the end of the season, he won’t miss this competition in the slightest.
This cruel storyline proved a temporary distraction to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, a situation that feels uncomfortably close to Chelsea after Russian owner Roman Abramovich announced his intention to pass stewardship of the Blues to the club’s trustees on Saturday evening. Ukraine flags adorned the Liverpool end, where supporters loudly booed the English national anthem before kickoff, but by the end of an absorbing contest, Kepa’s plight offered sporting relief from a tense political backdrop.
It is a curious quirk that had Kepa started the game, Chelsea may well not have even got to penalties, but if Mendy had ended the game they may have won it in the shootout.
Kepa never looked like saving any of Liverpool’s 11 penalties. Even standing to the left of centre as Virgil van Dijk lined up his spot kick did not stop the Dutchman smashing his effort to that side of the goal, beating his opponent with ease. Kepa was not brought on to take a penalty, of course, but after 20 successful conversions, he could not match the seemingly more mature manner in which Kelleher delivered with the ball at his feet.
It is tempting to conclude Tuchel overthought this.
“I feel bad for him but no blame, of course,” Tuchel said of Kepa. “Kepa simply has more time on the training ground [for penalties] than Edu, who plays a lot more.
“No regrets, I take the blame absolutely on me. I take the responsibility, of course.”
Once Liverpool lifted the trophy, Chelsea’s players began trudging off to the dressing room. Last to leave was Mendy. If he’d been allowed to hang around a little longer in the game itself, the outcome might have been very different.
— James Olley