Maurizio Sarri‘s team put in a fabulous performance in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. Willian, Eden Hazard, Jorginho, and the rest of the Blues squad gave their all on the Wembley pitch, a brilliant 120 minutes for Sarri who seemed to be nearing the end of his rope as manager of Chelsea.
It all went wrong at the end of extra time, in a moment that may prove the end of his tenure.
As extra time neared its close, goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who was risked in the final despite a recent hamstring injury, appeared to be clearly struggling after making a diving save on a Sergio Aguero effort on the doorstep of the goal mouth. With penalties nearing and the battle for a Champions League place heating up in league play, Sarri chose to make the substitution and save his first-choice to fight another day, bringing on 2016 substitute hero Willy Caballero.
Except the substitution never happened, because Kepa refused. In a show of player power that could prove Sarri’s ultimate downfall, Kepa outright refused to be substituted and won his way back onto the pitch. The young spaniard regained his footing and repeatedly gestured back to the bench that he was ok to continue. Sarri still decided to substitute his goalkeeper, to the point where Caballero was waiting on the touchline next to the fourth official who wondered whether to raise his board or not.
As the game was delayed by the confusion, Kepa stayed on the field, a bewildered Caballero wandered back to the bench, and Sarri – fuming over the incident – nearly left the field of play completely, only brought back by his own common sense, still muttering to himself in anger.
The situation continued to boil over as extra time came to a close and Kepa wandered back to the touchline to prepare for penalties. Sarri had to be consoled by defender Antonio Rudiger as he looked to have stern words with Kepa, as the goalkeeper mingled with his teammates, acting like nothing had happened.
In the ensuing shootout, Kepa had Sergio Aguero’s penalty saved to level the score, but the ball went straight through his hands. While there’s no telling if the injury had anything to do with the mistake, there’s no doubt the moment will only increase Sarri’s regret. On the next penalty, Kepa made a spectacular save on Leroy Sane’s decent effort. Unfortunately, the earlier mistake loomed large as David Luiz clattered the post and Manchester City won the shootout.
The moment could prove monumental in Sarri’s tenure as Chelsea manager. While Kepa will come out of this looking like the villain, the manager is still in charge, and his inability to bring a player off and assert his power as boss could prove his undoing. Sarri had multiple opportunities to force Kepa’s hand, but ultimately chose not to bring his goalkeeper off. Had the substitution board gone up with Kepa’s number, it’s then on the referees to get the player off under threat of caution or ultimately sending off. At the end of the day, it was Sarri’s decision not to withdraw his goalkeeper. Already on thin ice, his weakness in the face of player rebellion will go a long way to prove he’s lost the locker room at Stamford Bridge and lost control of his squad.