What looked to everyone at London’s Wembley Stadium and to millions more watching from afar to be a stunning act of insubordination was later explained to be a simple “misunderstanding.” At least, that’s how goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and Manager Maurizio Sarri of English Premier League soccer club Chelsea tried to downplay an episode in which the former refused to come off the field for a substitute during Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City.
An extra-time session in the 0-0 match was winding down when Sarri called for Arrizabalaga, who had appeared to be struggling with cramps, to be replaced by backup goalkeeper Willy Caballero. Instead, Arrizabalaga vehemently refused to exit the field, waving his arms toward the sideline as Sarri grew visibly upset.
Eventually, after referee John Moss conferred with Sarri, Arrizabalaga was allowed to stay on the field for the championship-deciding shootout. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper, following his record transfer from Spanish club Athletic Bilbao last year, made one stop but also an underwhelming effort on what could have been another save, and Chelsea fell to the defending champions.
While City celebrated, the embattled Sarri was left to cope with the fallout of what British TV announcers described as “an extraordinary scene.”
“It was only a big misunderstanding,” Sarri said (via the Guardian). “Kepa was right, but in the wrong way — wrong in the way he conducted himself, but mentally he was right, because he was able to go to penalties. He was right for his motivation, but not for the conduct.”
That conduct nearly caused Sarri to leave the field altogether before the shootout, after he threw a water bottle and made all too clear his enormous displeasure. “I was really angry, but I understood he had cramp, and I didn’t want the goalkeeper to go to penalties in that physical condition,” the manager said. “I realized the situation only after three or four minutes when the doctor arrived on the bench. I wanted Caballero on the pitch, but the goalkeeper wanted to let me know he was in condition to go to penalties.”
“In no moment was it my intention to disobey the boss,” said Arrizabalaga, 24. “It was misunderstood. I know if you see it from outside, it is not the best image. I have spoken with the boss. I think it was misunderstood.
“I understand that on television, on social media, they’re talking about this, but it wasn’t my intention to go against the manager. We have spoken now, and I was only trying to say I’m fine. He thought I wasn’t fine. It was in tense moments, with a lot happening. I know the image it’s given, but I never intended to refuse to go off. It was only to say I was fine.”
The incident was just the latest headache for Sarri, who was booed Monday by Chelsea fans during a 2-0 loss to Manchester United that knocked the club from the FA Cup. After that defeat, the manager, in his first season with Chelsea, told reporters that he was “not sure” he still had the support of his team and admitted, “I am not able to get out of my players a very high level of aggression and determination.”
That loss had followed Chelsea’s 6-0 destruction by Manchester City in Premier League play, and Sarri pointed to his squad’s much feistier performance against the same foe Sunday as evidence that he still had its attention.
“Today the players played exactly the match we prepared,” he said. “I think I am fully in control of this situation. "
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