The previously-dropped and much criticized goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga redeemed himself with dubious Chelsea fans following his heroics in Wednesday’s UEFA Super Cup final penalty shootout against Villareal.
Costing $94 million from Athletic Bilbao, Kepa became the world’s most expensive shotstopper in 2018. Yet following poor form at the beginning of last season, he was axed by then-coach Frank Lampard and replaced by. new signing Edouard Mendy from Rennes.
Lampard’s firing and the appointment of Thomas Tuchel made no difference to Kepa’s plight, as the former Spain international was made to watch on while Mendy manned the sticks on the Blues’ way to the Champions League trophy in Lisbon at the end of May as well as notching the most clean sheets in the competition.
? Most clean sheets in a Champions League season:?9⃣ Edouard Mendy, 2020/21?9⃣ Santiago Cañizares, 2000/01?9⃣ Keylor Navas, 2015/16 #UCLpic.twitter.com/b2gQ6B7yZU
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) June 1, 2021
Unsurprisingly, Mendy started Wednesday’s assignment in Belfast which pitted the west Londoners against Europa League winners Villareal in the one-off Super Cup.
Tuchel looked to have one hand on a second trophy in three months when Hakim Ziyech put his side ahead on 27 minutes, and Unai Emery’s men were unable to respond as the match went deep into the second half.
With just over a quarter of an hour reamining, however, talisman Gerard Moreno equalized and forced extra time, where a winner still could not be found.
Just before the spot kicks, Tuchel made a change by hooking Mendy off for Kepa, who was offered a chance at redemption following his many clangers.
Sure to get a hammering from his team’s supporters with anything less than victory, the 26-year-old immediately stepped up to the task.
Although Kai Havertz missed the opening spot kick, Kepa quite literally saved the Champions League final-winning goalscorer’s blushes by stopping the Yellow Submarine’s second attempt from Aissa Mandi and with the sides dead level after five, the shootout progressed to sudden death.
In a battle of center backs, Antonio Rudiger coolly converted which left the onus on ex-Real Madrid defender Raul Abiol to keep Villareal hopes alive.
Kepa got a hand to the Villarreal captain’s effort and a second Super Cup title was sealed via a 6-5 win. Celebrations ensued and Kepa was held aloft on his teammates’ shoulders as the hero of the hour.
?? Substitute goalkeeper Kepa the hero as Chelsea clinch shoot-out victory in Belfast ?#SuperCup
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 11, 2021
Tuchel also revealed that his decision was not “spontaneous”, and was all in the script if the game went to penalties.
“We talked about it with the goalkeepers when we had the first knockout game against Barnsley,” the German claimed. “Kepa is has the best save percentage with penalties, the analysts showed me the data and since then I decided. Edouard Mendy is happy to do this for the team.”
“It was not spontaneous, we talked about it with the goalkeepers!”Thomas Tuchel breaks down his decision to substitute Edouard Mendy for Kepa for Chelsea’s penalty shootout win over Villarreal ??️ @TheDesKellypic.twitter.com/nNeVkkQZyZ
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) August 11, 2021
Putting “his ego aside”, as Tuchel explained post-match, Mendy insisted that the win was brought about by teamwork and “a team effort”.
“When you play for Chelsea, you play for success, for titles. We do that together. I knew since last year that if Kepa comes on the pitch he would help the team. I’m really happy with Kepa!,” Cheslea’s number one added.
After all he’s been through, after all we’ve put him through, he turned up BIG today. I’m going to take this opportunity to apologize to him, and so should you.Sorry for doubting you, @kepa_46?? pic.twitter.com/VerkmV1jFV
— ChelseaFCBlogs (@ChelseaFCBlogs_) August 11, 2021
On social media, Kepa was lavished with praise by Chelsea supporters who said all was forgiven and that he had justified his lofty price tag.
“After all he’s been through, after all we’ve put him through, he turned up BIG today,” began one fan account post.
“I’m going to take this opportunity to apologize to him, and so should you. Sorry for doubting you, Kepa.”
“Our hero,” he was dubbed, in a popular reply to his celebratory tweet, while another response reminded everyone that “Kepa Arrizabalaga has more European success than Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham combined!”