Liverpool won the Carabao Cup on penalties against Chelsea in a riotously-entertaining final at Wembley this evening. There were no official goals over the 120 minutes of action, but several efforts were disallowed in a frenetic and attacking clash. Ultimately, penalties were the theatre within which this drama would find its conclusion. It was a fittingly nail-biting climax to a wonderful afternoon.
Far from the cagey affair a cup final often produces, both teams had periods of attacking dominance in the first half. The opening quarter belonged to Chelsea, who moved the ball well through the thirds, as Mason Mount and Kai Havertz dropped deep before powering forward on the offensive.
This approach put a chance on a plate for Christian Pulisic. Havertz found the American with a smart pass that put him clear on the edge of the six-yard box. Pulisic snatched at the opportunity, and his shot was well-saved by Caoimhin Kelleher.
While Jurgen Klopp was rewarded for sticking with the goalkeeper he’d used throughout this competition, Chelsea benefited from a ringer in the form of Edouard Mendy. The Senegal international was making his first appearance in the Carabao Cup this season, and quickly provided a memorable moment. Mendy got down well to save a long-range Naby Keita strike, before recovering unbelievably quickly to make a world class save from Sadio Mane’s rebound. Kepa Arrizabalaga will have been disappointed to lose his place, but his afternoon would not end on the bench.
Liverpool took over from here, and piled the pressure on Chelsea. The London side held strong under increasing scrutiny, as the free-flowing attacks of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz caused problems. From being under the cosh to being on the cusp of the lead, Chelsea fought back just before half time.
A motoring run from Pulisic ended with a pass to Havertz, who played an elegant ball towards Mount. The England star could not get enough on the shot though, and he sent his effort wide to keep this final deadlocked going into the break.
Tuchel had spoken of wanting to start Reece James in this fixture, before deciding against rushing him back from injury for a full 90 minutes. But it wasn’t long into the second period before we saw the wing-back, as James was introduced in place of Cesar Azpilicueta.
Mount once again found himself within shooting range, but sent a shot from the left-hand side straight at Kelleher. Keita was then lucky to escape punishment for going in studs-up on Trevoh Chalobah’s groin. It was mistimed rather than reckless, and both men required treatment, but the Liverpool man was lucky to escape without even a foul being awarded.
The deadlock looked to finally be broken when a poor Mendy kick invited a Liverpool counter. Salah ended up one-on-one with the goalkeeper and dinked the ball over him, only to see his tame effort cleared by Thiago Silva.
Kepa Arrizabalaga misses the 22nd penalty after being subbed on for the shoot-out! 😨
Before Chelsea had even wiped away the nervous sweat from their brow, Liverpool looked to have taken the lead. A Trent Alexander-Arnold free kick was headed down by Mane, through the legs of Antonio Rudiger. The ball fell to Joel Matip, who powered a header into the roof of the net. The goal was disallowed after a VAR check, when Virgil van Dijk was adjudged to have been in an offside position and interfering with play as the free kick was taken.
Liverpool refused to be discouraged, as Luis Diaz’s clipped the ball past James and powered down the left. The January arrival got a shot away, but Mendy dealt with it well. Chelsea then evened up the disallowed goal metrics as Havertz had a headed effort chalked off for offside. While the ball had been in the net for both sides, the score remained goalless. Extra time would follow.
Inconceivably, yet another goal was disallowed when substitute Romelu Lukaku apparently failed to time his run before hammering past Kelleher with a cathartic finish. His redemption was short-lived, when VAR found the slightest whisper of a reason not to give the goal. Even on the repeated replays, it was hard to spot any part of Lukaku’s body with which he could legally play the ball that was offside.
A lovely finish from Havertz in the second half of extra time saw the ball in the net again, but in this most prolific of 0-0 games it was of course disallowed. The only way this game could be settled was by a medium where the goals physically could not be disallowed, and that was a penalty shootout. Kepa Arrizabalaga came on as Chelsea’s penalty specialist, while Klopp kept faith in 23-year-old Kelleher.
Each team buried their first three spot kicks, with confident takes from the likes of Lukaku and van Dijk. There was an interesting moment of “can you top this?” from England’s right-back rivals, as Alexander-Arnold and then James both tucked their strikes away. Salah smiled after smashing his perfectly into the inside netting. The Egyptian shared some words with Jorginho as he stepped up to keep Chelsea in the game. The Italian was unfazed, with a nice hop and a skip before putting his away.
The hits kept coming, as Kelleher got a hand to Werner’s strike but could not keep it out. The score stood at 8-8 now, with not a single blemish on either record. At the opposite ends of the spectrum, 18-year-old Harvey Elliott and 37-year-old Thiago Silva both scored their spot kicks. Ibrahima Konate then struck Kepa’s hand with his effort, but it still squirmed past the Spaniard and into the net.
After twenty penalties scored, it was the goalkeeper's turn at the spot of destiny. Kelleher struck his like an old-school number nine, nearly bursting the net with supreme confidence. Then, in the cruelest of ironies, the penalty specialist was the player who decided the shootout. In echoes of his Spain teammate David De Gea, Kepa ballooned his effort over the crossbar to hand the Carabao Cup to Liverpool.
It was a cruel and unusual ending to a phenomenally entertaining cup final. The Carabao Cup has its detractors, and the early rounds are often a half-strength slog. But at Wembley this afternoon, in a world of such uncertainty and dread, two teams put on a wonderful spectacle of footballing escapism. There has to be a winner and a loser, but ultimately a game like this was something we all needed on this Sunday evening.