The world’s most expensive goalkeeper returns to the scene of what may forever be the defining image of his Chelsea career on Sunday.
Kepa Arrizabalaga has played 85 times for the Blues since the 2019 Carabao Cup final against Manchester City when he refused to be substituted and infuriated and undermined his boss, Maurizio Sarri.
Chelsea had held City at bay for 120 minutes. It was goalless and penalties loomed when the farce descended.
The world’s most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga returns to the scene of what may forever be the defining image of his Chelsea career
Kepa refused to leave the pitch for Willy Caballero (right) who was deemed the better penalty saver by boss Maurizio Sarri (left)
Sarri wanted to replace Kepa with Willy Caballero who he deemed a better penalty saver.
Kepa refused to leave the pitch, Sarri went mad. Kepa performed poorly in the shootout. City won.
But his appearances this season have been strong, stylish and influential. One penalty saved helped clinch the UEFA Super Cup when, ironically, he was sent on in the 119th minute to face the shootout against Villarreal.
Another in the FA Cup spared the embarrassment of penalties against Plymouth Argyle.
He has stepped in to deputise ably when Edouard Mendy was absent due to Covid and the Africa Cup of Nations and brilliant saves against Al-Hilal earlier this month secured a place in the Club World Cup final.
Kepa has stepped in to deputise Edouard Mendy (pictured) during the Africa Cup of Nations
In the Carabao Cup, he set a new Chelsea record with his seventh shootout save, to deny Aston Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba in the third round, extended it to eight when he foiled Southampton’s Theo Walcott in the fourth, and was the hero at Brentford in the quarterfinals.
‘Super impressed’ said Thomas Tuchel, hailing Kepa’s professionalism and attitude in training. ‘Outstanding character, fantastic team player.’
Kepa, 27, is in the best shape he has been as a Chelsea goalkeeper, a world away from this time last year when Tuchel arrived to find him locked in a crisis of confidence.
Kepa’s transfer from Athletic Bilbao in August 2018 came with a hint of desperation, hurried through as Chelsea coughed up the £71.6million release clause after Thibaut Courtois forced his move to Real Madrid.
The season started well enough although the new goalkeeper never appeared entirely at ease, then the Sarriball revolution lost its way, culminating in a 6-0 hammering at Manchester City, two weeks before a Carabao Cup final against the same opponents when he had his strop .
Then-Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri (pictured) was furious at Kepa for refusing to be substituted and knew the players had stopped listening to him at that stage
For Sarri, it enhanced a feeling that the players had stopped listening to him while Kepa came across as insolent and disrespectful.
The scrutiny intensified and things got worse when Frank Lampard came in, determined to play with more risk and less defensive security. Kepa made mistakes and Lampard’s trust evaporated and he turned to Caballero.
Chelsea signed Mendy for £22m from Rennes and added Petr Cech to the Premier League squad for the new season.
Cech, 38 and retired for more than a year, was coronavirus cover but his inclusion came with reasoning that he was as good as anyone when he trained, underlining the coaching staff’s feelings on Kepa.
When Tuchel replaced Lampard and switched to three centre-halves, making the team more solid at the back, Mendy looked unbeatable.
Kepa lost his place in Spain’s squad, overtaken by Brighton’s Robert Sanchez and he was not involved in Euro 2020. Unai Simon, his successor at Athletic Bilbao, has become the established No1.
Kepa’s improvements this season may spark a move as he fights for a recall before the World Cup in November.
Kepa’s been in good form for Chelsea this season and helped his side win the Club World Cup
Barcelona are keeping an eye on him and Chelsea – who don’t want to stand in his way – will listen to offers though they will not give away a costly signing with three years on his contract.
There’s a feeling within the dressing room that Kepa is perhaps the most naturally gifted keeper at the club. Under Tuchel, his goals conceded per game ratio shades Mendy’s, 0.55 to 0.62.
Other factors are, of course, in play. Mendy plays in bigger games against better strikers and does not boost his stats against Plymouth, Al-Hilal or Villa reserves. He also exudes calm with his unfussy authority, keeping his defense panic free.
Mendy, 30 next month, could continue for years and so despite his restored levels of confidence Kepa’s renaissance appears destined to remain incomplete.
If he gets a chance to impress on Sunday however, three years after that moment of madness it might at least represent the closure of a personal circle and conjure an alternative defining image of his Chelsea career.