In a dramatic evening of football, Manchester City won the Carabao Cup by beating Chelsea 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out after drawing 0-0 AET.
The match was a clash of styles as Maurizio Sarri sacrificed his own philosophy to try and make things happen, in the end it was goalless and went to penalties and there, Kepa Arrizabalaga was the villain as Pep Guardiola’s men held firm to claim the first trophy of the season.
Winner: Raheem Sterling
After all the criticism, the noise, the sound and the fury, the unjust and incessant media campaign to discredit and dishonour him, the absurd standards he is held to by a media who seem to single him out for criticism that will have dogs everywhere wincing in pain – Raheem Sterling has continued to do good work.
Best = 8/10 💪
Worst = 6/10 👏
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2019
On and off the field, he has conducted himself like a true professional and an absolute gentleman. He has been under no obligation to do so, but that he has chosen to anyway can only be admired.
When playing, he remains an underrated force in attack. A true miracle of a player who is as capable of magic moments as anyone else in the Premier League.
Tonight against Chelsea, he rocketed forward repeatedly, nearly won the game at the death of extra time before sealing it with the final penalty, a perfect penalty, hammering in off the inside of the bar then the post.
Top bins in his own back yard, just as he would have always dreamed it. Raheem Sterling, a true winner.
Loser: Kepa Arrizabalaga
When you make a big man move, when you act like a gangster, then you had better follow through. Michael Corleone was only The Godfather because he wiped out all his enemies after declaring himself to be so.
Kepa fronted up to Sarri at the end of the Carabao Cup final in shockingly disrespectful fashion. He refused to come off when his coach was demanding his substitution.
Now, alright, Kepa could argue that he wasn’t injured and Sarri had no need to bring Willy Caballero on. But does Kepa know that the sub was only down to injury?
Caballero was the shoot-out hero for Manchester City as they won this very same cup back in 2016, who’s to say Sarri didn’t want to bring him on anyway? Kepa didn’t care. He said no anyway.
And then he let a dribbler of a Sergio Aguero penalty skip underneath him in the shoot-out. He saved Leroy Sané’s penalty, sure, but letting that whimpering Aguero effort in after making such a big man move against his coach has made him look like a disrespectful fool.
Winner: N’Golo Kanté
“Why isn’t Kanté in defensive midfield?” Well, that’s why. N’Golo Kanté is a player composed of pure energy. If he was an anime character (and he’s as pure of heart as one) his super special attack would involve shooting light out of his mouth or something.
He was absolutely relentless against City, playing in a team in his style of play in a role that gave him the chance to eat up all the ground that he wanted to.
With Chelsea playing so deep and springing forward onto the break in acres of space, Kanté thrived. He was constantly flying at City players as they broke through the lines of Chelsea’s defence. Last ditch tackles aplenty.
And whenever Eden Hazard broke forward by himself, who do you think was always racing forward to support him? Kanté, of course. This was a game that suited him perfectly and he responded with a classically Kanté display.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel: sqwk.at/Squawka-Sub
That’s that, then. Even a coach as firmly focused on his style of play, a coach so dogmatic that he didn’t change things from the lowest runs of Italian football to the highest, has been beaten by the incessant whirl of noise created by the English football press and a Chelsea squad so unwilling to learn you wouldn’t have been surprised to see Bart Simpson show up as a late game sub.
Chelsea played a relentlessly defensive game in the Carabao Cup final. Now, sure, they were always going to have to be more pragmatic than they were a few weeks ago when City plastered them 6-0, but this? Chelsea cheerfully parked the bus and left just Hazard forward in attack; often even Hazard was in his own half.
This Chelsea display was right out of the Antonio Conte playbook. It spoke to Sarri’s comments about the Chelsea squad being hard to handle; because the Blues looked so comfortable playing the defence-first, counter-attacking style.
It confirmed that the philosophy that José Mourinho baked into the club, one of defence-first, reactive football (even when it involves attacking and scoring goals) is the only one that will stick in the heads of these players.
On the rare occasion the side will break out of that mould, think Carlo Ancelotti’s side in 2009/10 or Sarri’s at the start of this season, things always regress to the mean.
Mourinho’s mentality lingers in more ways than one, too. Player power is rife and so, late in the game, when Kepa staged his mini-revolt and refused to come off – it was no surprise.
The lack of respect with which Sarri’s philosophy was being treated was already evident, and Sarri abandoning that philosophy for the final would have been seen by an aggressive Chelsea squad as the final show of weakness they wanted. The Italian holds no authority at Stamford Bridge.
What a depressing state of affairs.
Winner: Eden Hazard
Much like Kanté, Hazard has often chafed under Sarri. Although it’s been for different reasons, mostly involving the Belgian’s lack of desire to play with any sort of positional discipline, he has alternated between looking white hot unstoppable and appearing to be dull as dishwater.
Today was interesting, because Hazard was actually playing in a role he usually despises; false nine. But because Chelsea were playing so deep, Hazard had essentially an entire half to play 1v2 against City’s centre-backs.
And when one of those centre-backs became Vincent Kompany, Hazard knew every attack could potentially cause danger was a golden chance to run at defenders too slow to stop him. That’s exactly what he did, bamboozling them over and over again, creating the game’s best chance (for Kanté) and lighting the final up. He even hit a panenka in the shoot-out, knowing that a miss would hand City the cup.
Loser: Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne was arguably the best player in the Premier League last season. Sure, Mohamed Salah scored the most goals but it was De Bruyne’s brilliance that powered City’s record-shattering 100 point title win. It looked like Guardiola had transformed him and created for City one of the finest central midfielders in the world.
This season he suffered with ligament trouble in his knees and has missed over 100 days of action as a result.
Unsurprisingly, his return from injury has seen his levels dip somewhat – but this afternoon he truly struggled to impose himself on Chelsea.
Part of it was the tactics the Blues deployed, but De Bruyne just seemed to be half-a-step too slow and when he had a chance to whip those brutal low fizzed crosses – he ended up ballooning them into the sky.
As crazy as it sounds, City got better when he was taken off, and you wouldn’t say that the brilliant Belgian is anywhere near their best XI right now.