Manchester City preserved their dreams of an unprecedented quadruple by retaining the Carabao Cup – after extra-time and on penalties with Raheem Sterling striking the decisive spot-kick – and Maurizio Sarri will hope he has preserved his chances of keeping his job as Chelsea manager.
It was a fine battling performance from Chelsea – which was the least Sarri needed – but it was overshadowed by an extraordinary, quite remarkable row involving goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga who flatly refused to be substituted despite being ordered to come off by Sarri.
The manager wanted to bring on former City goalkeeper Willy Caballero – a hero in saving three penalties in the shoot-out in the League Cup Final against Liverpool in 2016 – but Arrizabalaga would not come off.
It was a clear undermining of Sarri’s authority and he was incandescent with rage, even walking down the tunnel before coming back. David Luiz also tried to make Arrizabalaga leave but he refused to go.
Chelsea’s medical director Paco Biosca having to act as peace-maker while Antonio Rudiger had to actually restrain Sarri. In the shoot-out Arrizabalaga saved from Leroy Sane but City goalkeeper parried twice – a woeful kick from Jorginho and another poor effort from David Luiz. It meant Sterling won it 4-3 for City whose only concern was the added time played and the loss of Fernandinho to an apparent groin injury.
The win also meant this was the first trophy City had retained in their history as they now remain in contention for the Premier League, Champions League and are in the last eight of the FA Cup.
When Jorginho body-checked Sergio Aguero straight from the kick-off, with just two seconds on the clock, it proved prophetic for much of this final even if Chelsea’s tactics did prove effective, even if they also eventually grew into the game to provide their own threat.
So there would be a Chelsea Plan B, a Sarri Plan B, after all, and that was B for block and battle and frustrate City. And then bounce-back.
The holders had beaten Oxford United and Burton Albion on the way to this final and it felt like Chelsea wanted to also initially adopt the role of lower-league under-dogs. They were bot the 4-3-3 formation which Sarri apparently believed was non-negotiable: this was emphatically 4-5-1 with Eden Hazard, who was excellent, in the ‘false nine’ role. Except it was not that. He was, in fact up-front on his own.
And that was it. Chelsea will argue that Oleksandr Zinchenko should have been punished, maybe even red-carded, for apparently impeding N’Golo Kante but it was debatable and the midfielder appeared to handle anyway as referee Jon Moss played on.
Into the second-half Moss called on the video assistant referee when the ball dropped to Aguero who span and fired it into the net. The striker appeared offside but replays showed it was tight – with City arguing that he was played on by Rudiger’s foot – but the decision stood.
Finally Chelsea threatened and went close when, thrillingly, Hazard ran on to a long ball by Willian down the left, easily beat substitute Vincent Kompany and crossed low. Kante met it but his first-time shot narrowly cleared the cross-bar.
At last the game was opening up with Willian pulling the ball back for Ross Barkley inside the City area. He had time and space but could only curl his shot over. In fairness to Chelsea their game-plan was working. They had soaked up pressure, they had frustrated City and, as Sarri had demanded, they had stayed in the game and were now showing some ambition of their own.
For once Sarri’s first change was not Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley (or vice-versa). Instead he brought on Callum Hudson-Odoi for Pedro and when Barkley did eventually go off it was for Ruben Loftus-Cheek while City were left furious after another Jorginho body-check, taking out Sterling as he threatened to run through. Jorginho was cautioned.
Despite a better second-half there was only one shot on target for each side in the 90 minutes – Nicolas Otamendi for City in the first-half and then, in injury-time, Ederson tipped over Willian’s free-kick. There was frustration for Chelsea when Hazard was sent through on goal but was pulled up for offside. Again it was a close decision with the protocol having been ignored – Hazard should have been allowed to go on with the incident then reviewed by the VAR. To add further salt to that wound he probably was onside.
In the second-half of added-time Sterling wonderfully worked his way through to find Aguero whose goal-bound shot, with Arrizabalaga stranded, struck the back-leg of Cesar Azpilicueta. It was that close for City who had taken the initiative again in the added 30 minutes.
They would have one final chance with substitute Sane sprinting forward and the ball breaking to Aguero who shot – when he had to pass to the unmarked Sterling – with Arrizabalaga saving. Soon after he refused to be substituted before the real drama began.