16 Conclusions on a bloody mental League Cup final

Date published: Sunday 24th February 2019 9:51

1) There were no goals, no red cards and a distinct lack of Olivier Giroud, but this season’s titular final was a perfect last injection of Carabao into our collective expectant veins.

When even Gianfranco Zola gets caught up in all the commotion you know that the EFL has accidentally stumbled upon something so precious and divine that it should never be altered again. You can stuff your FA Cup magic when Thailand’s second most popular energy drink is an option.

It will always be the ugly cousin, the fourth priority for any elite team until the semi-finals and an unwanted distraction for most of the rest. But it is our ugly cousin, our unwanted distraction. And it is oh so very beautiful.

Long live the motherf***ing Carabao.

 

2) Let’s start at the end, shall we?

For a club synonymous with player power, Chelsea really did take the piss on Sunday. A side that helped adorn Roberto Di Matteo’s dining room cabinet with a Champions League winner’s medal is used to taking matters into its own hands and still emerging victorious.

With that said, it is usually a concerted squad effort to overrule a coach behind the Stamford Bridge scenes, not one player staging a mutiny on the Wembley pitch. Whatever your opinion of Sarri and his Chelsea reign thus far – a team that has gone from amongst the pre season favourites in football betting terms, to not even being considered – the insolence and insubordination of his keeper makes it difficult not to feel sympathy.

Kepa might not have been injured. He certainly seemed to insist as such, despite attempts to remove him. The Spaniard was a doubt for the game with a hamstring strain that seemed to flare up late on. But with the opportunity to become a cup final hero so close, he rejected the suggestion that a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction or over-shortening should cramp his style.

So he defied his manager’s orders. And that is the point here: whether Kepa was injured or not, he defied his boss. “Miscommunication” or otherwise, it is a long way back from that.

Sarri was apoplectic on the touchline, and understandably so. Willy Caballero was primed and ready to come on, having saved three penalties in the final of this competition for City three years ago. Vincent Kompany’s post-match concession that he “didn’t want” the Argentinean to be introduced said it all.

But by ignoring orders Kepa has almost guaranteed that an excellent Chelsea performance – and fine game management from Sarri – will now be forgotten and ignored in favour of a narrative of a coach failing to control or command respect from his players.

What did David Luiz say to him? Why did captain Cesar Azpilicueta not take control of the situation and act as an arbiter between the club’s two warring factions? Why are some blaming Sarri for not storming onto the pitch and dragging Kepa off?

The world’s most expensive keeper instead stayed on, jumped over City’s second penalty, and suffered his first ever defeat as Chelsea manager. He went into business for himself and was promptly liquidated.

 

3) Every villain needs a hero, and for Raheem Sterling to step up, accept the burden of responsibility for the final penalty and put it “top bins” took immense character. The dish would have cooled after two months, but revenge must have been utterly sweet.

It was strange to see five forward-thinking City players take penalties compared to three Chelsea defenders, holding midfielder Jorginho and the impudent, brilliant Hazard. Julian Dicks would surely scoff at the suggestion, but surely Gonzalo Higuain is a better bet from 12 yards than David Luiz?

 

4) As aforementioned, it is a shame that Sarri’s approach will be overshadowed. A pity, too, that he has taken so long to learn some painful lessons.

A fortnight after their Etihad Stadium humbling, Chelsea set up with their much-derided false-nine formation, and sought to thwart City from kick-off. Quite literally, as it happened: a stray arm from Jorginho left Sergio Aguero clutching his face in the centre circle before Sky Sports’ score and time graphic appeared in the top-left corner.

It was a simple approach more akin to their victory over the champions in December, where they accepted that fighting fire with fire was futile if they were just holding a sparkler up against a volcano. They doused each and every City attack as a unit and posed a latent threat on the counter.

First and foremost, he adapted. The stubbornness that has blighted much of his first season in England was a distant memory as he adapted to the game, the opponent and, perhaps most importantly, his own players. He has surely earned himself a stay of execution.

Perhaps the most progress Sarri showed was with his substitutions, however. There was no Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley on 70 minutes, and Willian did not make way for Pedro just after the hour, with both starting. Instead, the introduction of Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro injected pace into the attack, Ruben Loftus-Cheek offered more presence in place of Barkley, and Gonzalo Higuain provided a focal point as he replaced Willian in extra-time. It so nearly paid off.

 

5) Against any team other than City, it might have. They were far from their best but victory was vital in maintaining their momentum. Liverpool might have returned to the top of the Premier League on Sunday, but City feel like the team in the ascendancy.

Guardiola and his players will continue to ignore media-fuelled talk of the Quadruple, and so they should. But completing one leg of that unfathomable quartet of trophies was integral: both the FA Cup and Champions League finals are played after the final day of the Premier League season, so defeat in either would have no overarching affect on the rest of the campaign. Losing at Wembley in February with so many games left and so many prizes still to fight for could have been catastrophic.

As it is, City will happily allow others to keep talking about a historic season while they themselves block out the noise. Considering the circumstances, this could have been the single most important win of Guardiola’s tenure thus far.

 

6) City had been in this position before. They beat Liverpool on penalties in the 2016 League Cup final before getting, in the words of Vincent Kompany, “absolutely peppered” in a 3-0 Premier League defeat to the same team three days later. But they managed to kill off the wounded animal in a similar situation last year, beating Arsenal 3-0 in both the League Cup final and then in the Premier League four days later.

The 14-day gap between facing Chelsea in the Premier League and League Cup final this time around only allowed that 6-0 humiliation to fester, but it also played into Chelsea’s hands. The only pressure they were under was to not suffer a similar embarrassment, whereas City were expected to pick up where they left off.

That a spell of concentrated Chelsea possession was met with a smattering of boos by the sixth minute suggested City would not have it so easy this time around. They were already 1-0 up by that point two weeks ago.

 

7) Sarri made just two changes to the starting XI that had been decimated at the Etihad. It might not have been a coincidence that Emerson and Willian, both almost entirely unsullied by that game, were Chelsea’s two best players.

Antonio Rudiger was wonderful in the first half and Hazard sensational in the second, but Chelsea’s left-hand side was impeccable throughout. Emerson offered stability with six tackles up against Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Kyle Walker, while no player on either side created more chances than Willian (two).

If Marcos Alonso immediately regains his place at left-back it would be a travesty. The Spaniard has been Chelsea’s weak point for some time, and Emerson struck up an immediate partnership with Willian. They deserve a sustained run together.

 

8) It was a first half which can be summed up with one incontrovertible truth: Nicolas Otamendi went closest at either end.

The centre-half had the only shot on target – save for a weak and deflected Aguero effort that was trickling wide before Kepa opted to keep it in play – as he ghosted in at the far post to try and divert Oleksandr Zinchenko’s fine ball towards goal as Chelsea cleared from a corner.

But Otamendi is as Otamendi does and his header from a Pedro free-kick on the stroke of half-time drifted just wide of Ederson’s goal. The knife-edge nature of a game that seemed destined to be settled by a moment of madness rather than majesty was summed up rather beautifully by the most suitable of players.

 

9) The pendulum had not exactly swung, but it had shifted ever so slightly in Chelsea’s favour. A couple of bright moments from Hazard meant they enjoyed a positive end to the half, which was supplemented with news of a hamstring injury to Aymeric Laporte.

The Frenchman had actually been beaten a couple of times for pace by Hazard but managed to recover on an afternoon when many a centre-half would have struggled to contain the Chelsea forward.

Just ask his replacement. Vincent Kompany is far from a spent force, but he is an obvious downgrade. Any defensive change will cause disruption as the player coming on is required to acclimatise to the flow of the game instantly, while his teammates adjust to a new voice and presence alongside them.

Chelsea hardly smelled blood, but they did try and poke at the slightest of cuts while it was healing. Within eight minutes of the restart Hazard was played into the space behind Kompany and bore down on goal, with only his uncharacteristic hesitation giving Otamendi the chance to put out the flames before they spread.

The opportunity came and went in a flash, reminding City that while possession is nine-tenths of the law, there is a fraction it cannot account for.

 

10) Just over ten minutes later, misery almost made public its undying love for Kompany. Willian again released Hazard into the gaping space behind the centre-half, and the Chelsea forward promptly danced past his compatriot and into the City area.

His pull-back was perfect, directed straight into the path of N’Golo Kante, but the finish was wayward. After over an hour of successfully weathering the storm, Chelsea could finally see the sun breaking through the clouds. Their belief was growing just as City’s began to waiver.

To be uber-critical, perhaps Sarri could have considered bringing Hudson-Odoi or Loftus-Cheek on then to try capitalise as the tables were turning. The latter in particular could have made a huge difference with more time: he made the second-most dribbles of any Chelsea player (four) in just 32 minutes.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and there is no guarantee that would have worked. That is the delicate balance of trying to beat City, of course: everything has to be almost perfect.

 

11) Kante epitomised Chelsea’s ability to grow in the game as it went on. He completed just three passes in the opening half an hour as he busied himself chasing shadows, but he eventually made his presence felt.

The missed chance should take little away from a supreme defensive performance, in which he made almost half as many tackles, interceptions and clearances (10) as he did passes (22). Jorginho alongside him was also incredibly improved, save for his penalty-taking prowess.

But Kante was the final’s standout performer. As much as there is room for improvement on the ball, particularly in a position he is still adjusting to, there is no better player in world football off it.

 

12) The loss of Laporte not only forced City to adapt defensively, but it removed their main outlet. Laporte had completed more passes (69) than anyone else had even attempted in the first half as Guardiola’s side constantly looked to build attacks through him.

After having four shots to Chelsea’s one in the first half, City had five to their four in the second. Their approach and dynamic changed completely as they had to commit more numbers forward, with neither Kompany nor Otamendi’s passing quick enough to bypass the midfield and find the flanks. Neither centre-half are slouches on the ball by any means, but City had to sacrifice a little more defensive solidity to make up for Laporte’s absence.

 

13) As the scorer of 151 career goals, winner of 24 major trophies and former teammate of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Alvaro Morata, Chelsea could not have wished for a better player than Pedro to be presented with a chance from six yards out. As the game ticked over into its final quarter of an hour, their game plan was about to have its pièce de résistance, the crowning moment it richly deserved.

Barkley’s excellent work combined with Hazard’s electric run gave Pedro ample time and space with which to consult his favourite expected goal analyst and run through all the possible outcomes. He could have chosen to go high, rendering Ederson almost obsolete. He could have clipped it low to the Brazilian’s left-hand side with an effort that would have required superhuman instincts to react to. He could have gone with power, placement or a combination of the two, such was the angle and position. He could have even closed his eyes and hit it as hard as possible and, more often than not, he would have scored.

The option of cutting it back towards Hazard in a crowded penalty area should never have even crossed his mind, yet this former world and European champion quite simply suffered a crisis of confidence at the most inopportune moment. Kepa will shoulder the blame for this defeat, but his teammate and compatriot summarily bottle the game-deciding moment. The sympathy for Sarri only continues.

 

14) Was Hazard offside or played on by Zinchenko? As with the disallowed Aguero goal, it really is far too difficult to say with any authority. So I won’t.

A half that started with VAR controversy was spared it by the end only by the linesman flagging as Hazard raced through on goal. It was a remarkably brave call, particularly with the new technology there as a safety net in the case of indecision or uncertainty.

The real shame is that it overshadowed a piece of purely sensational skill from Loftus-Cheek, who turned Walker with a sublime touch before playing Hazard in, all in one swift movement. Mateo Kovacic would have snapped both his ankles even just thinking about it.

Also, just note Kompany’s positioning. Honestly.

 

15) With both De Bruyne and David Silva peripheral figures, the defence susceptible on the odd occasion it was called into question and Aguero unable to come anywhere close to repeating his Etihad hat-trick, it was actually quite difficult to decide who City’s best player was.

On an afternoon when both Aro Muric and Phil Foden were relegated to the bench despite their efforts in helping City reach the final, it was their youngest player who made the biggest impression. Zinchenko was excellent at left-back as he continues to grow in the role.

He made the most tackles (eight) and interceptions (three) of any player, as well as the most passes in the opposition half (58). It was an incredibly mature performance considering he was touted for a move both last summer and in January. Guardiola would be loathe to lose him now.

 

16) One man whose future surely points away from England is Hazard, who used perhaps his final Wembley performance as a reminder of just what Chelsea and the Premier League stand to lose if he leaves.

If his last kick on this famous stage is to chip a penalty over one of the world’s best goalkeepers as he is almost standing on his line, there would be few more suitable ways to bow out. Hazard deserved this trophy after a barnstorming display.

He completed eight dribbles and was fouled six times  – both match-leading statistics for either side – and no Chelsea player won the ball back more often (eight times).

The Blues face an unenviable decision in the summer. If they can overturn or delay their transfer ban, do they keep by far their best player and risk losing him for free when his contract expires, or sell him and reinvest with the considerable sum?

One thing is for certain: they will not be able to replace him like-for-like. A bloody Panenka penalty in a cup final sudden-death situation. Really.

Matt Stead

 

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