Caoimhin Kelleher won the battle of the second-choice goalkeepers against Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga as Liverpool claimed a record ninth League Cup after an incredible penalty shoot-out.
The Irishman scored the decisive kick, with his opposite number – sent on specifically for the shoot-out with two minutes of extra time remaining – blazing over as the spot-kicks finished 11-10 after 21 of 22 efforts were perfectly dispatched.
In a thrilling and absorbing Carabao Cup final at Wembley both sides had goals ruled out for offside in normal time, Joel Matip falling foul of Virgil Van Dijk’s transgression and substitute Romelu Lukaku marginally straying ahead.
Extra time could not settle it and it ultimately came down to the goalkeepers, but not in the way usually imagined in a shoot-out, as Kelleher – who started after manager Jurgen Klopp kept faith with him for cup competitions – was successful from the spot and Kepa, who had barely touched the ball after coming on, was not.
Kelleher had played in every Carabao Cup game bar one this season, and then only because first-choice Alisson Becker needed game time after Covid-19, and was the hero in the quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Leicester.
Kepa had similar outings in the cup competitions but his ‘live’ game time in the final amounted to less than three minutes as Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel adopted the policy he had done in the UEFA Super Cup final in August by swapping the otherwise excellent Edouard Mendy for the Spaniard, who famously refused to come off in the 2019 League Cup final.
It barely affected his shot-stopping as virtually all the penalties taken were unstoppable but cannot have helped his rhythm or feel for the occasion.
Penalties were almost inevitable after two of the Premier League’s top three sides went blow-for-blow over 120 minutes with disallowed goals and the odd on-pitch confrontation adding to the occasion.
Mohamed Salah was making only his third League Cup appearance for the club in nearly five years, having lost his previous two appearances against Chelsea in September 2018 and Arsenal in October 2020.
It was also third time lucky for Klopp, who had lost his last two Wembley appearances in the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool in the 2016 League Cup final, when they were beaten by Manchester City on penalties.
As expected Chelsea started without Romelu Lukaku, although the withdrawal of midfielder Thiago Alcantara after injury in the warm up was a significant blow to Liverpool with the midfielder, in tears on the bench, having to be consoled by team-mate Alisson at kick-off.
The late change unsurprisingly affected Klopp’s side who, for 15 minutes, appeared to struggle with Chelsea’s front three and left wing-back Cesar Azpilicueta pushing on.
Just six minutes in Kelleher justified his manager’s faith by producing a superb reaction close-range save from Christian Pulisic.
Liverpool’s first sight at goal saw Sadio Mane comically misjudge Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross and head well off target, with Salah slicing a free-kick wide.
Having got their act together Klopp’s side began to dominate possession – they had a 10-minute spell where they had the ball 87 per cent of the time – and Mendy got down low to block Naby Keita’s shot before brilliantly getting up to deny Mane’s close-range follow-up.
Salah headed wide at the far post from Andy Robertson’s cross but Chelsea continued to create the best chances with Kelleher saving from Pulisic as Liverpool waited for another delayed offside flag which never came before Mason Mount bundled wide with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Pulisic, sliding in at the far post, failed to connect with a Kai Havertz cross early in the second half but the most glaring miss came from Mount who appeared to get the ball stuck under his feet having been clean through and stabbed a shot against a post.
In the technical area Tuchel sank to his knees and beat the turf with his hand.
Injury to Azpilicueta saw Reece James make his first appearance since late December faced with the livewire Luis Diaz, one of Liverpool’s better players on the afternoon.
Thiago Silva belied his 37 years to race back and clear Salah’s goal-bound dink over Mendy after the goalkeeper had scuffed a clearance.
Liverpool thought they had taken the lead when Matip nodded home from Mane’s header but VAR suggested referee Stuart Atwell look at the monitor and it was chalked off for an offside against Van Dijk, who had blocked Toni Rudiger’s run.
It was the sign for Tuchel to send on Lukaku and Timo Werner, for Mount and Pulisic, with Werner the next to be flagged offside as Havertz headed home.
Liverpool’s triple substitution saw Diogo Jota, James Milner and Harvey Elliott introduced but it was the impressive Diaz and then Van Dijk who forced Mendy into two saves, before Kelleher denied Lukaku with virtually the last kick of added time.
Lukaku had a goal ruled out in the first extra period on a tight-looking offside call and Havertz for one less so in the second.
A series of impeccable penalties followed before Kelleher brought home Liverpool’s first domestic cup in a decade in unlikely circumstances.