BELFAST: Thomas Tuchel made the bold call, and Kepa Arrizabalaga made the big saves.
Brought on as a substitute with seconds remaining in extra time, Kepa kept out two spot kicks as Chelsea beat Villarreal 6-5 in a penalty shootout to win the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday.
Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, has been informed by his team of statisticians that Kepa has a better record at saving penalties than first-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, so the substitution was made in the 119th minute of a match that ended 1-1 after extra time.
Kepa had already saved a penalty from Aissa Mandi when he dived low to his right again and parried out Raul Albiol’s attempt in what proved to be the final kick of the shootout at Windsor Park in Northern Ireland.
As Chelsea’s players sprinted from the halfway line to celebrate with Kepa, one of the first to reach him was Mendy.
“It was certainly not spontaneous,” Tuchel said of the goalkeeper switch, explaining the plan had been hatched in the FA Cup last season. “We talked about it with the goalkeepers after the first cup game against Barnsley.
“We had some statistics, we were well-prepared. Kepa is the best percentage in saving penalties. The analysing guys, the goalkeeper coaches showed me the data and then we spoke with the players that this can happen when we play in knockout games.
“And since then they know and it’s fantastic how Edu accepts it,” added the German. Edouard does not show the pride to not step off the field. He was happy to do it for the team and take this for the team.”
Mendy said he had no hard feelings at all. “Of course I’m happy because we won,” the Senegal international told BT Sport television.
Less than 10 weeks after Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester City in the Champions League final in Porto, Cesar Azpilicueta was again lifting a European trophy to the backdrop of fireworks and tickertape.
Among the players celebrating on the podium behind him was Hakim Ziyech, who had his right arm in a sling after a suspected dislocated shoulder in the 40th minute 13 minutes after putting Chelsea into the lead by converting a cross from Kai Havertz.
That was cancelled out by Gerard Moreno in the 73rd for the Spain international’s record 83rd goal for Villarreal breaking the record he shared with former Italy striker Giuseppe Rossi. Moreno exchanged a one-two with Boulaye Dia before lifting his shot over Mendy and into the top corner.
Villarreal were playing in the Super Cup as the Europa League champions, a tournament they won by beating Manchester United in a penalty shootout. On that occasion, every one of its players converted their penalties in the shootout before goalkeeper Gernimo Rulli saved from opposite number David De Gea to seal an 11-10 win.
Rulli was on the bench Wednesday, with Sergio Asenjo starting as goalkeeper and he saved the first kick of the shootout from Havertz. Chelsea scored their next six to allow Kepa to take centre stage.
“I was ready, because I knew this might happen,” Kepa said.
Kepa memorably refused to come off near the end of the English League Cup final in 2019, despite being called to the bench by then-manager Maurizio Sarri. Back-up keeper Willy Caballero, a penalty specialist, was ready to come on as a replacement and it led to Sarri almost storming off down the tunnel at Wembley Stadium.
Chelsea now turn their thoughts to the start of the Premier League season, and the imminent signing of striker Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan, with an opening match at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2021