On any list of the footballers you’d least like to take on in a sprint, Lucas Moura would rank high. The Tottenham Hotspur winger has a rapid sixth gear, and he had shifted into it shortly before the hour mark of the League Cup semi-final second leg against Chelsea on Wednesday night.
The race was on. As Lucas chased down a through-ball, Kepa Arrizabalaga took him on, head on, advancing from the Chelsea goal. The speedster and the keeper reached the ball inside the Chelsea penalty area almost simultaneously. Lucas fell forward after their impact and a penalty was awarded. Thankfully for Kepa, VAR revealed not a foul but a tackle so finely timed any centre-half would have beamed with pride on seeing the replay.
Thanks to VAR, a later Harry Kane ‘goal’ was ruled out for offside, Kepa forgiven, with the offside call, for the misjudged pass that had conceded possession to Spurs in the build up. By the end of the night, he was celebrating a place in the final and a second successive clean sheet against Spurs in the space of eight days. He will be keen to maintain that record when the clubs meet again in the Premier League in eight days’ time.
First, though, Saturday’s summit meeting of the most prolific team in England’s top division, Manchester City and the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, the status Kepa still retains. He is also by far the priciest understudy goalkeeper in the game.
The €80 million ($91.8m) paid by Chelsea to Athletic Bilbao in the summer of 2018 is a burdensome gauge by which Kepa is perpetually judged. Had his poor pass out from the back been punished by an onside Kane at Tottenham, he would have anticipated a cascade of criticism around the size of his fee and the frequency of his failings. "Negative coverage sometimes goes too far,” Kepa wrote in The Players Tribune, where he also noted that his record-breaking price-tag “felt like a huge responsibility”.
Had he mistimed that bold tackle, with an outstretched left leg on Moura, and conceded a penalty, sceptics would have referenced the €80m again even before the spot-kick was taken. Incidentally, Kepa may well have saved it: his record at keeping out spot-kicks is outstanding.
But that penalty-stopping record - he has starred in three Chelsea victories via shoot-outs in Cup matches this season - is not enough to elevate Kepa to first-choice gloveman at the club who invested so heavily in him. He lost his starting place in the side at the beginning of last season, having been dropped at the end of the previous campaign, 2019/20.
He knew the then Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, had advised the club’s board to seek a new keeper and the immediate success of Edouard Mendy, bought for a little under €30m from Rennes, pushed Kepa back in the hierarchy.
Tottenham 0 Chelsea 1: player ratings
Mendy is currently in Cameroon with his country, Senegal, at an Africa Cup of Nations where he anticipates being involved well into the last week of the tournament. That means Kepa has the Chelsea gloves for a make-or-break period, perhaps lasting into the second week of February, in his club’s bid to stay in the Premier League title race.
Saturday’s assignment at the home of the league leaders, a City 10 points clear of second-placed Chelsea, will carry particular memories of the ups and downs of Kepa’s Chelsea career.
There was the painful six goals conceded on his first visit to the Etihad in his debut English season. There was the "misunderstanding" - as Kepa terms it - with his first Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri at the end of extra-time in the 2019 League Cup final against City, when he was substituted before the deciding penalty shoot-out.
Sarri thought the Spaniard was injured; Kepa protested he was not. The exchange between the two as veteran substitute gloveman Willy Caballero was brought on to face the spot-kicks was hot-tempered. City won the penalties.
There was last season’s FA Cup semi-final victory over City, when he was picked by a relatively new manager Thomas Tuchel, who over the last 11 months has set about rebuilding Kepa’s lowered confidence and backed him as number one in the domestic Cups.
There was the Champions League final against City last May. Kepa cherishes a photo of himself from that night, ecstatically lifting the trophy after Chelsea’s 1-0 win. Mendy had played the match, with Kepa on the bench, but the reserve keeper interprets his joy in that picture as a symbol of “how close we are as a team,” adding “the coaches deserve recognition for making every one of us feel important”.
Kepa is vitally important now and for the crucial weeks ahead.