Kepa Arrizabalaga has finally lifted the lid on his infamous on-pitch bust-up with former Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri during the 2019 League Cup final.
On a cold February afternoon, the Blues were facing Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at Wembley. The match had moved into extra time with the game goalless after 90 minutes.
City were the dominant side in extra time despite Sarri introducing Gonzalo Higuain from the substitutes’ bench and moving Eden Hazard, who had started as a false nine, out wide.
It was towards the end of the additional 30 minutes that one of the most bizarre incidents in Chelsea‘s recent history took place. Kepa stayed down after making a save and there was a belief among Sarri and his coaching staff that the Spaniard could not continue.
Willy Caballero undertook a quick warm-up and the fourth official raised the board to confirm the substitution. Yet Kepa frantically waved his arms to the bench and refused to leave the pitch despite the efforts of Sarri and the Chelsea players.
Chelsea would go on to lose the resulting penalty shootout and Kepa’s decision to stay on the pitch was vilified by supporters, pundits and the media alike.
Now, more than two years on, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper has given a detailed account of the incident in an article with The Players’ Tribune in which he admits he should have followed Sarri’s instructions.
“It was all a big misunderstanding,” the Chelsea goalkeeper explains. “Manchester City were dominating the game in extra time and there was barely any time left until penalties. After making a save, I felt something in my leg and I called for the physio to make sure it was nothing. Above all, though, I wanted to make sure that we as a team could catch our breath.
“Suddenly, I saw that the coach, Maurizio Sarri, had sent Willy Caballero to warm up. He thought I couldn’t go on. My intention, right or wrong, had only been to waste time to help the team. I didn’t have any serious problem that was going to keep me from continuing to play.
“I tried to signal that I was O.K, that I wasn’t injured. But we were at Wembley in front of more than 80,000 people, so of course Sarri didn’t understand me. When the fourth official raised the board, clearly I should have come off, and I’m sorry I didn’t.
“I was wrong, and I am sorry for everyone who was involved: for Maurizio Sarri, who it seemed like I had undermined in public; for Willy, a teammate and a great professional; and for all my teammates and Chelsea fans who had to put up with everything — all the noise that was generated during the game and then in the days after.
“Inside the club it was no big deal. I had a chat with the boss, we talked about how we had each seen the situation, and we cleared the air.
“After that I got dropped for one game, but a week later I was back in the team. I remember playing a great game against Fulham, and that was it. A couple of months later we knocked Frankfurt out of the Europa League semi-finals and I saved two penalties in the shootout.
“Internally, everything was fine again. But outside the club, it got out of control.”
The incident remains the standout moment of Kepa’s first campaign with the Blues, and that is despite Chelsea winning the 2019 Europa League.
Kepa’s second season at Stamford Bridge also resulted in negative headlines. Under Frank Lampard, the 26-year-old’s form nosedived and by the end of the 2019/20 season, he had lost his place in the side to Caballero.
For much of last term, Kepa was second choice to Edouard Mendy, who was signed by Rennes. And the Spain international’s long-term future remains uncertain, although Chelsea will never be able to recoup the £71million they paid Athletic Club for the goalkeeper in the summer of 2018.
“I’m starting this new season full of enthusiasm and ready to continue doing what I like the most,” Kepa added. “I know that if I work hard in every session, and support the team in any way I can, then the results will follow. They always do.
“Nobody knows what will happen in the future. But today I am very happy in London, and I hope that in the coming years I can celebrate many more titles with my team, Chelsea Football Club.”
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