Ultimately, Liverpool’s record ninth League Cup victory was a tale of two goalkeepers. Chelsea’s Kepa, brought on to be the hero, but who became the villain, and the unflappable Caoimhin Kelleher, who beat his opposite number from the spot, as Liverpool won the penalty shoot-out 11-10.
With Jurgen Klopp sticking to his promise to start with Kelleher in goal, his faith was rewarded as early as the fifth minute, when a fantastic reflex close-up save thwarted Havertz. In a frantic opening five minutes, it was the Londoners who’d started the brighter; Liverpool perhaps, adjusting to the loss of Thiago, apparently injured in the warm-up, and it took the dazzling Luis Diaz to get Liverpool going.
The Colombian, impressive since his January move from Porto, was superb in the Wembley sunshine. Terrorising Chelsea down the left side, he was at the centre of Liverpool’s best work throughout the game. His skill; jinxing, turning, dribbling, was on display throughout, but it’s perhaps his industry that’s most impressive so early in his Liverpool career. He appears to have immediately grasped just what Klopp demands of all his players, and though he himself never really threatened to score, he was certainly helping create his team’s best opportunities.
In contrast, Mo Salah on the opposite flank was well marshalled by Chelsea, whilst Mane missed a glorious chance to put Liverpool ahead on thirty minutes. Keita, who’d replaced Thiago in the starting eleven, struck a shot from the edge of the area, that looked destined for the bottom corner. Mendy though had other ideas. Palming the ball away from goal, he then hurled his body into a close-range effort from Sadio Mane, just tipping the ball over the ball. A great save, but in truth, the Senegalese should have put Liverpool ahead.
It was Mane’s loss of possession that then gifted Chelsea a glorious chance. Losing the ball on the halfway line, Chelsea sprang forward, and with a goal from the Londoners looking a bear certainty, a clipped ball to Mason Mount was somehow hit wide. Just how the teams, both looking dangerous in possession, went in 0-0 at half-time is a puzzle, and the cup final, of the highest quality throughout, continued apace in the second half.
Once again, Chelsea started the brighter. On the front foot, a yard quicker all over the pitch, but once again Mount missed a gift-wrapped chance to put his side ahead. This time though, it was the post that came to Liverpool’s rescue, whilst Chelsea then had cause to thank VAR, for what looked like a perfectly good headed goal by Matip, disallowed for a marginal offside call against Van Dijk, even though the outstanding Dutchman never actually touched the ball.
That delayed VAR call was just one of four goals disallowed thanks to video replays, with Chelsea thrice denied. Lukaka’s effort in extra time, perhaps the most dubious off-side call of the afternoon, and at a time when Liverpool began to look both mentally and physically tired. The substitutions of Klopp in the second half appeared to lessen the threat from Liverpool, as Elliot, Jota, and Milner struggled to affect the game, as Henderson, Keita, and Mane made way.
As extra time petered out, with both sides appearing to accept the inevitability of a penalty shoot-out, Konte replaced Matip, and Diaz, surely Liverpool’s star performer, made way for Origi. Looking a little out of ideas, Liverpool we’re grateful to see another goal for Chelsea chalked off for off-side, and just before the referee blew his whistle on a thunderous and evenly-contested showpiece event, and with penalties looming, Mendy, who’d been superb for Chelsea, was replaced by penalty specialist Kepa. A fateful decision.
Kepa, who’d saved four penalties as Chelsea progressed to the final, never got close to saving any of Liverpool’s spot-kicks, whilst Kelleher had just once looked like he might save a Chelsea penalty. By this time, all ten outfield players for both sides had netted, and up stepped the young Cork keeper, to take on his opposite number.
Kelleher, who’d looked calm and collected throughout the entire afternoon, stride forward, and those who may have doubted his ability from the spot, saw his twelve-yard strike satisfyingly ripple the net. Next, it was Kepa’s turn. In post-match interviews, Chelsea’s manager Thomas Tuchel suggested Kepa was too quick to shoot, and he certainly looked just a bit too keen to get it over with. Rushing forward, and leaning back, the ball sailed high over the bar, and it may well still be in orbit somewhere over Wembley stadium.
So a game that somehow finished without a goal, but was never dull, finished with high drama. Liverpool, who’d been defeated on penalty kicks when last contesting the League Cup Final, got their hands on the trophy for a record ninth time, and are indisputably England’s most successful club. Klopp now adding a domestic cup, to his previous haul of silverware since taking the helm. The quadruple is still a possibility, and it’s surely inconceivable that the honours board at Liverpool won’t see more additions, whilst the brilliant and charismatic German prowls the touchline in front of an adoring Anfield faithful.