It was a move from Thomas Tuchel that had worked before. In the European Super Cup final at the start of the season against Villarreal, the Chelsea manager had brought on Kepa Arrizabalaga for the penalty shootout. Arrizabalaga saved two and Chelsea won.
The goalkeeper had been the hero of two shootout victories earlier in this edition of the Carabao Cup, saving once apiece against Aston Villa and Southampton, having started both ties, and he even made a crucial penalty save in extra time to secure the 2-1 FA Cup win over Plymouth earlier this month.
This time, it all went wrong for him and Tuchel.
The final had been pulsating, featuring big chances at both ends, dramatic saves and disabled goals – with VAR making its presence felt on two occasions. With penalties looming, Tuchel hooked Édouard Mendy, who had excelled, and introduced Arrizabalaga.
The psychology was interesting and it was always going to be laced with risk. Arrizabalaga had started in every round of the competition and so to be dropped for the final had to have stung. Moreover, it is known that Chelsea will entertain offers for him in the summer. This was the acid test of his professionalism.
But Arrizabalaga could not repel any of Liverpool’s five regulation penalties or the six in sudden death that followed. And there was a grim inevitability about what happened when he was forced to take his team’s 11th kick. Arrizabalaga lifted high over the crossbar and, as he buried his head in his hands, it was his opposite number, Caoimhín Kelleher, who found himself jumping high in triumph, almost floating.
There had never been any doubt as to whether Jürgen Klopp would start the 23-year-old Republic of Ireland internationally, who has established himself ahead of Adrian as Alisson’s deputy. Kelleher had made two shootout saves in the quarter-final victory over Leicester while he was unflappable in the semi-final, second-leg win at Arsenal.
The boyhood Liverpool fan gives the impression that nothing fazes him and he made two fine saves during the 90 minutes; one early on to deny Christian Pulisic, the other to keep out a near-post flick from the Chelsea substitute Romelu Lukaku deep into stoppage time. When Kelleher had to step up in the shootout – for his team’s 11th kick – he sent the ball past Arrizabalaga and almost into the top corner and he would be the toast of the club’s traveling supporters.
After Klopp’s Champions League and Premier League triumphs at Liverpool, he has finally got his hands on a domestic cup – the one with the three handles. Three really was a charm for the manager. On his previous two visits to Wembley for finals, Klopp had lost in the 2013 Champions League with Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich and the 2016 Carabao Cup with his present employer to Manchester City – that one on penalties. For Liverpool, this was a first domestic cup success since 2012 and a record ninth in the competition.
Liverpool had the opportunities to have won inside the 90 minutes and they were horrified when Joël Matip had a goal disallowed midway through the second half. With celebratory red flares having been lit by their fans, VAR ruled that Virgil van Dijk had been in an offside position and interfering with the Chelsea substitute Reece James when Trent Alexander-Arnold dropped in a free-kick and before Sadio Mané had headed square at the back post. It was harsh. Van Dijk had simply stood his ground.
The hope for Liverpool is that this victory can galvanize them for the even bigger battles ahead – namely the hunt to chase down City in the league and the Champions League. They also remain alive in the FA Cup. Since being pegged back to 2-2 at Chelsea in the league on 2 January, they have swept all before them and this was the latest occasion when they found a way to get the job done.
For Chelsea, the regrets were plentiful. Pulisic should not have given Kelleher the chance to save in the fifth minute after a cross from César Azpilicueta while Mason Mount wasted glorious openings either side of half-time. Kai Havertz, who impressed in the No 9 role, had the ball in the net twice only to be denied by offside flags – the second in the second period of extra-time – while the borderline call had come in the 109th minute. Running on to a Trevoh Chalobah pass, Lukaku cut inside and rammed past Kelleher only for the VAR lines to decree that he had gone fractionally too early.
The emotion cracked throughout, particularly when everyone inside Wembley stood before kick-off to show solidarity with Ukraine after the invasion of their country by Russia. Thiago Alcântara was in tears for a different reason, injury in the warm-up having ruled the Liverpool midfielder out. Naby Keïta was promoted to the starting XI.
Chelsea played off Havertz and punched hard on the counter; they opened up Liverpool around the sides and even through the middle. But Klopp’s team had their opportunities, too – particularly in the second half of normal time.
Mohamed Salah blew a one-on-one with Mendy while the dangerous Luis Díaz – all silky movement and explosive bursts – twice worked the goalkeeper, drawing an especially fine save out of him on the second occasion. Mendy, who had produced a stunning double stop to deny Keïta and Mané in the first half, also repelled a Van Dijk header in the 90th minute.