Kepa was left in TEARS after refusing to come off in League Cup final

‘When he recognised his mistake he cried’: Kepa Arrizabalaga was left in TEARS after refusing to come off in the 2019 League Cup final, ex-Chelsea goalkeeper coach reveals… four years on from the Spaniard’s infamous bust-up with Maurizio Sarri at Wembley

  • Kepa defied Sarri’s orders during Chelsea’s crucial showdown with Man City
  • Sarri’s goalkeeper coach Massimo Nenci was in the thick of it all at Wembley
  • Nenci takes a look back at the infamous day in question in a chat with Sportsmail 

The idea of a footballer refusing to leave the pitch when substituted is a staggering one in itself. Yet doing so in the dying minutes of a major cup final, and eventually forcing a manager to back down, would usually be inconceivable.

It may still be a rarity, but players disobeying instructions when asked to come off the bench is hardly unprecedented. Cristiano Ronaldo stormed down the Old Trafford tunnel instead of entering the fray for Manchester United as recently as October. 

Former Manchester City star Carlos Tevez sparked similar controversy during a Champions League match away at Bayern Munich in 2011. This is nothing new at the highest levels of the sport, where ego and emotion often take centre stage.

Openly ignoring orders to be taken out of a game, however, was virtually unheard of until the afternoon of February 24, 2019.

It was on this very day four years ago that Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga provided the most astonishing test of a manager’s authority we have perhaps ever seen on these shores in the 2019 League Cup final. With three minutes of extra-time remaining, the Spanish goalkeeper infamously refused to be replaced by penalty specialist Willy Caballero with spot-kicks looming against Manchester City.

Kepa Arrizabalaga infamously refused to be substituted in the 2019 League Cup final

Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri (left) was ready to replace Kepa with Willy Caballero (right) in goal

But the Spanish goalkeeper openly disobeyed his manager in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley

After going down with apparent cramp late on at Wembley, Chelsea head coach Maurizio Sarri opted to bring Caballero on for the impending shootout against his previous employers. Or so he thought.

Because Kepa, desperate to play a part in the final’s gripping conclusion, hopped back to his feet, gestured animatedly to Sarri that he was well enough to continue and wagged his finger in a clear defiance of his manager’s orders.

In the end Sarri conceded defeat. The Italian told Caballero to sit back down and his frustration, his humiliation was evident as he stormed back to the bench and threw his jacket down in rage. He even looked to be heading down the tunnel at one stage.

And right in the thick of it all was Sarri’s trusted goalkeeping coach Massimo Nenci.

‘The day before, Kepa had a little bit of an injury but it wasn’t that important. Then the day after he played the match,’ Nenci recalls in an exclusive chat with Sportsmail.

‘At the end of the 90 minutes he was receiving some treatment for the injury, and Antonio Rudiger said to him, “wait wait wait, we are in a difficult moment. We need you to stay on.” Kepa stayed there with the doctor, who said that his situation was good.

‘But in extra-time Maurizio thought we should substitute Kepa with Caballero, because Caballero is a big penalty saver, and against City [his former club] he would have been perfect for us.

‘But Kepa didn’t understand that the substitution was for tactical reasons, not because of the injury. Willy is a big, big penalty saver.’

Sarri was furious after conceding defeat, returning to the bench and throwing his jacket down

His goalkeeper coach Massimo Nenci (third from right) was right in the thick of it all in London

In a chat with Sportsmail, Nenci confirmed that Kepa was being taken off for ‘tactical reasons’

Caballero was being brought on for the resulting penalties due to his spot-kick expertise

If his goalkeeper had gone on to prove the hero in the shootout, Sarri may have felt inclined to laugh off the ordeal afterwards. Though unfortunately for Kepa that was not the case. Instead, he let a weak Sergio Aguero effort slip under his body as City prevailed.

Former Chelsea captain John Terry, left stunned by what he’d seen play out from the Sky Sports studio, said he would have single-handedly forced Kepa off the pitch in Sarri’s shoes. Gary Lineker branded his defiance ‘extraordinary’.

‘All the team was angry in the dressing room,’ Nenci continues. ‘But first of all, I want to tell you that Kepa is a very, very good guy. And when he recognised his mistake he cried, he cried. He is a very good guy.

‘He was saying, “I’m sorry mister, I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.”‘

Despite his remorse, Kepa was dropped by Sarri for Chelsea’s next outing against Tottenham and fined a week’s wages, understood to be worth around £190,000.

The Athletic Bilbao graduate fully accepted any punishment that came his way after showing Sarri up on the biggest stage. ‘I have thought a lot more about yesterday’s events,’ he said the day after the final, ‘although there was a misunderstanding, on reflection, I made a big mistake with how I handled the situation.

‘I will learn from this episode and will accept any punishment or discipline the club decides is appropriate.’

Kepa failed to prove the hero for Chelsea as they were beaten in the shootout by City

The £72million shot-stopper cried in the dressing room after realising his mistake, Nenci said

Fortunately for Kepa, his manager was not the type to hold a grudge or come down any harder than necessary. Once he had served his punishment, Sarri brought the youngster back in between the sticks and reaped the rewards as Chelsea’s campaign finished on a high.

As well as securing a third-place finish in the Premier League, the Blues made up for their League Cup heartbreak by trouncing Arsenal 4-1 in the Europa League final, and it was Kepa’s semi-final heroics that got them to Baku.

He saved two penalties in a shootout win over Eintracht Frankfurt to help Sarri’s men reach the final in Azerbaijan, where a turbulent season which had at one stage threatened to boil over eventually ended with silverware. 

Nenci, who has accompanied Sarri at Napoli, Juventus and current club Lazio as well as Chelsea, was one of the driving forces behind the Blues’ £72million move for Kepa in 2018 after putting together a compilation of his highlights.

‘He impressed me so much and I showed the manager this movie, and after watching it the manager agreed with me,’ the 58-year-old says. ‘So we decided together to sign Kepa to defend our goal.

Nenci, pictured lifting the Europa League with Sarri, has accompanied him at Napoli, Juventus, and current club Lazio as well as Chelsea

The 58-year-old put together a compilation of Kepa’s highlights after being left impressed by his performances for Athletic Bilbao, which convinced Sarri and Chelsea to sign him

‘When he arrived at Chelsea he was a little bit confused, because he came from a normal team not on the level of Chelsea, but after one month he flied, he flied with us. He had a very, very good season for me.

‘His best qualities were strength and reactions, big reactions. He’s amazing. I remember a particular save when he was at Bilbao and he went back and saved one on the goal-line. Fantastic. He impressed me so much.’

While it hasn’t come in the best of circumstances, Kepa is currently enjoying his most active Chelsea season since he fell out of favour in the wake of Sarri’s exit.

A strong debut campaign was followed by a disastrous second under Frank Lampard, who frequently dropped his stuttering No 1 amid a series of high-profile blunders before signing Senegal’s Edouard Mendy as a direct replacement in 2020.

Mendy went on to star in Chelsea’s Champions League triumph under Thomas Tuchel, who replaced the sacked Lampard in January 2021, and it is only now that Kepa has regained a foothold in goal with yet another head coach at the helm in Graham Potter.

He has certainly benefitted from Mendy’s regular injury problems throughout this season. Though despite the team’s disastrous form under Potter – which has brought just two wins in 14 matches – Kepa has produced some encouraging individual displays to help them attain the joint-second best defensive record in the league.

When discussing his former pupil’s revival, Nenci points the finger at Sarri’s successor. ‘He struggled a lot because Lampard didn’t have any confidence in him. He didn’t believe in him and Kepa was not so strong [mentally],’ he says.

‘I talked with him every day and told him “Kepa, don’t worry. Don’t worry. Stay strong and work hard every day”. I supported him and he’s a very good guy, he had to work hard to come back stronger than ever.

Nenci has been delighted to see Kepa regain his place in Chelsea’s starting XI this season

‘Now he’s back, now he’s back for me. Kepa had to work very, very hard in these years and now his level is very high again.’

Four years on from his afternoon of shame at Wembley, Kepa has come full circle at Stamford Bridge and, while Chelsea are in free-fall as they try to integrate a unique volume of January arrivals, the future looks bright for him under Potter.

‘For me Kepa is back to the same goalkeeper we saw four years ago,’ Nenci insists. ‘He’s better because he has more experience and now if he goes through a difficult [moment] he knows he can get out of the difficult [moment]. So for me now he’s better.

‘He’s stronger now.’

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