Liverpool win dramatic League Cup final after Tuchel’s Kepa gamble backfires

Chelsea substitute keeper Arrizabalaga misses in shootout after 21 successful penalties to hand Reds ninth title

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Kepa Arrizabalaga’s reputation as the penalty shootout specialist may not survive this. Brought on after 119 minutes, he failed to save any of Liverpool’s 11 spot kicks and then ballooned his over the bar. Liverpool’s record ninth League Cup came in remarkable fashion, after a shootout when no one saved a penalty but when Thomas Tuchel’s gamble backfired.

He had removed the man of the match to bring on Arrizabalaga, who infamously refused to be substituted for the shootout in the 2019 final. The Spaniard had been the European Super Cup hero, but this brought an exhibition of superb penalty taking, whether from regulars like James Milner to Liverpool’s reserve goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher. And when Arrizabalaga missed, Liverpool won a domestic cup for the first time in a decade.

But it required a marathon. As two Premier League draws between them demonstrated, very little separates evenly-matched teams. Both teams had a goal chalked off; three, in Chelsea’s case. Both were denied by fine goalkeeping. Both had periods where they were on top. It contrived to be hugely eventful and yet goalless. It was an epic in every other respect.

Profligacy was a problem for Chelsea. Kai Havertz kept fashioning opportunities. His team-mates kept missing them. So often the big-game scorer, when Havertz did head in a Timo Werner cross, his supplier was offside. When he arrowed a shot in, he was offside. Yet Havertz’s elusiveness and excellence indicated why the false nine was preferred to Romelu Lukaku.

They encountered resistance in the form of an understudy. Klopp had promised that Kelleher would start, was true to his word and soon had early vindication.

Picked out by Havertz, Cesar Azpilicueta slid in a low cross and Christian Pulisic met it with a close-range shot. Kelleher saved. Havertz’s influence was a constant and he crossed when an unmarked Mason Mount volleyed wide just before half-time.

It was one of two glaring misses by the Englishman, who rolled a shot against the post when Pulisic sprang Liverpool’s offside trap with a chipped pass. It had Tuchel slapping the ground in frustration and was a reminder that Chelsea’s attackers score too few goals.

In this case, however, Kelleher was a factor. When Lukaku came off the bench, his injury-time effort was superbly repelled by the young Irishman at his near post. When he did bury a shot past Kelleher in extra time, he was marginally offside.

Liverpool’s plans had been disrupted when they lost Thiago in the warm-up and perhaps that accounted for a slow start. When they did assume the initiative, Thiago’s replacement drew the first of a double save.

Mendy’s second stop from Sadio Mane was outstanding. It brought a different kind of managerial vindication over a goalkeeping decision: Tuchel had sprung a surprise by picking his first choice.

When Mendy did err, with a poor kick, Thiago Silva came to his rescue, the 37-year-old retreating to clear Mohamed Salah’s shot off the line after Sadio Mane had released the Egyptian and he had dinked a shot over the goalkeeper.

Otherwise, Mendy was outstanding. Luis Diaz was menacing and impressive and also came close to scoring, escaping in behind Chelsea’s defence to have a shot Mendy blocked. Factor in a stop from Andy Robertson and a last-minute block from Virgil van Dijk’s header and it amounted to a terrific display of defiance.

When he was beaten, VAR came to Chelsea’s rescue. Trent Alexander-Arnold took a free kick for set-piece specialists, Mane headed it across the box and Joel Matip applied the finishing touch. It was chalked off because Van Dijk, who had blocked off Reece James, was offside. It was the story of the game but Arrizabalaga was the story of the shootout.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 6:17 AM