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. He had even made a crucial penalty save during extra time in the FA Cup win against Plymouth at the start of this month.
This time, it all went wrong for him and Tuchel. With nothing to separate Chelsea and Liverpool, a final that featured huge chances, dramatic saves, disallowed goals, and VAR controversy hurtled into a shootout.
On came Arrizabalaga for Édouard Mendy, who had been excellent, only for him to fail to get anywhere near to Liverpool’s five regulation kicks and the six in sudden death that followed. And then there he was, forced to take Chelsea’s 11th kick. He blazed it high over the bar and Liverpool had a victory to savour.
For Jürgen Klopp, the third time was a charm at Wembley, after his losses here with Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final to Bayern Munich and with Liverpool in the final of this competition to Manchester City in 2016 on penalties.
Klopp could toast the assurance of his back-up goalkeeper, Caoimhín Kelleher, who scored his penalty in nerveless fashion – just before Arrizabalaga’s miss – and also made important saves during the game. It was Liverpool’s first domestic cup triumph since 2012 and, as they fight on all fronts, they will view it as a potential catalyst for greater triumphs before the end of the season. For Chelsea – and Arrizabalaga, especially – there were only regrets.
The opening whistle had brought excitement and a narrowing of the focus but nobody could ignore the broader context; the horrors in Ukraine following the invasion by Russia.
Tuchel admitted beforehand he had mixed feelings, wondering whether the clubs would be “allowed to fully engage and fully celebrate” and there was no doubt that the unfolding situation at Chelsea regarding Roman Abramovich represented a distraction.
Amid the threat of sanctions against him from the UK government, the Russian oligarch’s decision to look to cede control of the club to the trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation on Saturday night had driven a powerful plotline – with the potential to reshape the landscape at Stamford Bridge.
The occasion had started with tears from Thiago Alcântara on the Liverpool bench, the midfielder having been injured in the warm-up and replaced in the lineup by Naby Keïta, and the emotion crackled throughout an end-to-end thriller.
Chelsea were quickly into their stride, hustling hard. With Romelu Lukaku still dropped, Kai Havertz brought trademark smoothness to the No 9 role, linking the play intelligently, and he had a hand in the buildup to the big early chance. From César Azpilicueta’s cross, Christian Pulisic had a first-time sidefoot only to put it too close to Kelleher.
Klopp’s decision to persist with Kelleher ahead of Alisson had been well signposted; that of Tuchel to prefer Mendy to Arrizabalaga at the outset a little less so. That said, it was no real surprise. The club are ready to listen to offers for Arrizabalaga, who had started in every previous round of the tournament.
The balance of the first half was shifting when Mendy made a double save on the half hour. Sadio Mané had misdirected a presentable header from a Trent Alexander-Arrnold delivery and Liverpool were taking up advanced positions.
Luis Díaz was relentless on the left – all silky movement and explosive bursts; what a game he had – and he and his teammates believed they could get at Trevoh Chalobah, Chelsea’s right-sided centre-half.
It was Keïta that ran on to a layoff and hammered in a low drive, which Mendy could only parry. But the goalkeeper sprang back up and was able to divert Mané’s close-range follow-up over the crossbar. Mané did little wrong. It was a breathtaking save from his Senegal teammate.
Chelsea wanted to play off Havertz and punch hard on the counter. They flickered through Pulisic and Azpilicueta before half-time but it was Mason Mount that had Tuchel beating the turf in frustration on 45 minutes. Havertz crosssed from the right and, like Pulisic before him, Mount arrived in front of goal. His volley whistled past the near post.
Worse would follow from Mount at the start of the second half. After Havertz had almost crossed for Pulisic, it was Pulisic that got Mount clean through with a chipped pass. Around the sides or through the middle, Chelsea came to believe they could open up Liverpool.
Mount had only Kelleher to beat and the breakdown in Liverpool’s defensive structure was startling. Perhaps Mount had too much time. He jabbed in a low shot that hit the inside of the post and rolled to safety. This time, Tuchel got down on all four to smack the ground.
Liverpool’s response was forceful; they blasted back into control and they thought they had the breakthrough moments after Salah had blown a one-on-one with Mendy, after a loose clearance by the goalkeeper and a quick Mané release.
Alexander-Arnold hung up a free-kick towards Mané at the far post and, when he headed down and across, Joël Matip nodded home. Enter VAR, the technology spotting that Virgil van Dijk had been offside and interfering with the substitute Reece James when the free-kick was taken. It was extremely harsh, Van Dijk simply stood his ground.
It was fast and furious, both teams determined to win it in normal time, and it was Liverpool who almost did. Díaz twice worked Mendy – on the second occasion, the goalkeeper’s save was superb – and, in stoppage time, Mendy again excelled to keep out a Van Dijk header.
For Chelsea, Havertz had the ball in the net only for Timo Werner, who had come off the bench, to have strayed offside before crossing while Lukaku – on in the 73rd minute – touched a Marcos Alonso cross at the near post and saw Kelleher save smartly.
Lukaku would come closer in extra time, bursting onto a Chalobah pass, jinking inside and ramming low past Kelleher only to be ruled marginally offside, while Havertz would have the ball into the net again only to see yet another flag.