Chelsea completed the quartet of English teams in European finals with their shoot-out win over Eintracht Frankfurt. Here are three things we learned in the game.
For the second time this season Chelsea needed 30 extra minutes and a penalty shoot-out to decide a game. Unlike the last one, the Europa League semifinal did not involve goalkeeper dissent. Quite the contrary, as Kepa Arrizabalaga emerged as one of the heroes for the Blues on the night.
1. Chelsea’s last line of defence is their best line of defence
Chelsea have flushed a lot of money down the drain with ill-conceived transfers over the years. The £72 million they spent on Kepa Arrizabalaga is not going that route.
With the game scoreless after 15 minutes, Douglas da Costa blasted a volley towards the top left corner of Chelsea’s net. Arrizabalaga denied da Costa what would have been one of the goals of the tournament, reacting impeccably and flying through the air to push the ball over the bar.
The Spaniard had several more strong saves, but his save on Martin Hinteregger’s penalty was the most meaningful. Arrizabalaga did the hardest thing for any goalkeeper to do, let alone one as young and relatively inexperienced as him: he stood his ground. Arrizabalaga resisted the intention to dive to one side or another once he read Hinteregger’s intention to blast his shot down the middle. He looked more like an ice hockey goaltender than a football goalkeeper as he butterflied his legs inward, trapping the ball under his right shin.
It makes for good banter, yes, but there is something deeper in the contrast between Arrizabalaga and Thibaut Courtois as summed up in this shot. Courtois’ most indefensible vulnerability was the space between his legs. He allowed more goals through the five-hole than any goalkeeper ever labeled “world-class.” Arrizabalaga’s composure and bodily control in the shoot-out, topping off his performance throughout the night, underscores just how much Chelsea moved up in the world with last summer’s goalkeeper business.
However, Arrizzbalaga was not the only goal-line hero for the Blues. David Luiz and Davide Zappacosta both cleared Eintracht shots inches away from Chelsea’s net. Sebastian Haller spiked a pass into the ground, causing it to loop high on its way to goal. Its trajectory took it away from Kepa, but the extra travel time allowed Luiz to crash into the goalpost while clearing the ball with the outside of his shin.
Later, Zappacosta covered for more shoddy zonal marking on an Eintracht Frankfurt corner by heading a headed shot off the goal line.
There was no ambiguity in either of those shots: without the intervention of Chelsea’s defenders, Eintracht Frankfurt would have scored and the Blues would have needed two goals to advance. When everything else fails in front of net – as it often does given the personnel and (ahem) organization of the squad on set pieces – the Blues were lucky to have two timely interventions and the regular presence of Kepa Arrizabalaga.