Dubai: On a day when the focus should have been on Manchester City retaining the League Cup and the Premier League title race taking another twist with Liverpool’s stalemate with Manchester United, all the chatter was about the bare-faced defiance, humiliation and farce that has seen Chelsea plumb new depths in embarrassment.
Weeks after their 6-0 drubbing by City in the league, and following their exit from the FA Cup having been easily outclassed by United, Chelsea put on much-improved show at Wembley, keeping City at bay for 120 minutes and more than holding their own.
This should all have gone some way to repairing coach Maurizio Sarri’s reputation that had been shredded by fans and the media for terrible results, predictable tactics, public criticism of his players and a seeming lack of real leadership.
That hard work over two hours was undone in two insane minutes, thanks to an act of ludicrous insubordination unlike any English football — or football on a whole outside of a local Sunday league, for that matter — has ever seen before.
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to accept being substituted for spot-kick specialist Willy Caballero as Sunday’s game headed to a penalty shoot-out, sending Sarri into a fit of rage on the touchline, throwing bottles and, at one point marching up the tunnel to leave the players to their own devices before he thought better of it and returned to seethe on the bench alongside a bewildered Caballero.
Kepa stayed on, saved one penalty but ultimately ended up on the losing side. Sarri will be the ultimate loser, however. The manager missed out a first trophy of his 20-plus-year career but he lost more than just a game. With the world watching, it was blatantly clear that he has lost his authority at the club and will now lose his job too.
When the dust and ticker tape settled and City waltzed off with another piece of silverware in the kit bag, Sarri issued a somewhat questionable explanation of events, claiming he thought his keeper had cramp and it was all just one big misunderstanding that can be swept under the carpet. No chance of that.
A little later, Kepa — from the safety of his mobile phone keypad — offed his version of events.
“At no time has it been my intention to disobey the coach or any of his decisions,” Kepa said. “I have full respect for the coach and his authority.
“The coach thought I was not in a position to play on and my intention was to express that I was in good condition to continue helping the team, while the docs that had treated me arrived at the bench to give the message. I feel the image that has been portrayed was not my intention.”
Sarri’s take: “Kepa was right but in the wrong way. He was right for the motivation but not for the conduct.”
Cramp. Really? He’s a goalkeeper, not a midfielder who has ran the length of the field for 120 minutes. There have been better excuses concocted by schoolkids to get out of cross-country running during PE on a miserable November morning.
While Kepa is massively at fault for his point-blank refusal to obey his coach’s orders, the situation at Chelsea is one of their own making.
The managerial job at Stamford Bridge is such a temporary position these days (14 men and counting have held the post since the ruthless Roman Abramovich took over in 2003) that there is no time to establish authority and command respect from a bunch of egotistical and increasingly wealthy young men. The Chelsea boss is as disposable as a broken pair of shin pads and the players know it.
Yesterday, Chelsea’s Wikipedia page was hacked by some wannabe comedian claiming Kepa had been installed as the new manager of the club. While that’s a long shot as the keeper’s own future at the club must also be questionable now, it does illustrate that Sarri is no longer in charge. He will be replaced very soon and the whole circus will start again.