Our goalkeeper proved to be the barrier which ensured our place in Baku and here he reflects on overcoming Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi, facing penalties and a big derby match to come…
Penalty shoot-out star for a second semi-final in a row at Stamford Bridge, Kepa Arrizabalaga craves a trophy to crown his first season with the Blues.
Our summer goalkeeping recruit had only a few months to get used to the job before facing one of its most extreme tests under the lights at SW6. More than 40,000 supporters on tenterhooks, his team assembled around the centre circle and in the dugout, all focus on the ball and his gloves, and with a final at his fingertips.
Kepa’s first penalty shoot-out in a semi-final for Chelsea was against Tottenham Hotspur in January when he produced a tension-shattering save from Lucas Moura to send the Blues into the Carabao Cup final at Wembley.
The repeat, perhaps under even more pressure, came earlier this month with Chelsea playing to reach our third European final in seven years (our fifth including the UEFA Super Cups). Our chance to finish the season with a trophy, set up a high-stakes north London derby against Arsenal, and complete a clean sweep for Premier League clubs when it came to places in both the Champions League and Europa League finals was hanging in the balance.
Kepa kept his head again, saving twice to make sure we could book our tickets to Baku for 29 May.
‘Sometimes penalties go your way and sometimes they don’t, but this time, I was very happy to have been able to help the team,’ Kepa says, modestly. The Spanish goalkeeper had done his preparation; he guessed right four times out of five, crucially maintaining his composure to stand still and deny Eintracht Frankfurt’s fourth penalty-taker Martin Hinteregger (gripping the ball between his legs, in a save he will perhaps never repeat) before stooping low to stop Goncalo Mendes Paciencia and set up Eden Hazard to stroke home the winning spot-kick.
’I think that nowadays all goalkeepers do some analysis – a bit of research about possible penalty-takers and where they usually like to shoot,’ Kepa explained afterwards. ‘We have plenty of data available and you always take a look at things that might give you the edge. In situations like that, where not a lot is within your control, it can help to guide your decisions. I was really pleased to have been able to do that for the team.’
Looking back at before he became the protagonist in the semi-final, the 24-year-old goalkeeper was impressed with the fast start his colleagues made to the return leg, capped by a well-taken goal from Ruben Loftus-Cheek on 28 minutes, but Kepa admitted he was increasingly wary of Eintracht as the Germans grew into the second half.
‘We came up against a very good, very physical team. In the first half, I think we controlled the game well. It was crucial that we scored the first goal, so we were quite positive going into half-time. But after the break, Eintracht came back stronger and when they got their equaliser, things probably started to look a bit more complicated for us because of the away goals situation. It was a very difficult and very intense match,’ he said.
Though Eintracht may have had the tactical benefit of the away goals rule in the latter stages, especially in extra-time, knowing a single goal would in all likelihood take the game beyond the grasp of Chelsea, Kepa praised the particularly passionate Stamford Bridge crowd that night for making our home advantage count.
‘Our supporters were superb in driving us on to get to penalties and then to the final against very, very strong opposition,’ he said. ‘With a fantastic atmosphere and the fans right behind us, it was special.’
After we secured third place away at Leicester City on final day of the domestic season – the top team in London once more – it’s mission accomplished as far as Champions League qualification is concerned. Nevertheless, Kepa is adamant that no one in the Blues squad is ready for the beach just yet.
‘We are all delighted to have made it through and to be going to the final,’ he said. ‘Eintracht made us work hard and both legs of the semi-final were very tough, so we believe we deserve to be here. Now we have to get over the last hurdle which is winning the title we have all been contesting for many matches.’
The Blues are now unbeaten in our last 17 Europa League matches, including our victory over Benfica in the 2013 final – a record since the competition was rebranded a decade ago – but Kepa believes beating Arsenal in Baku would be the best win of all.
‘Both the fans and the players are relishing this match,’ he emphasised. ‘It's going to be another very difficult game, and a derby and a final, so anything could happen. We are going to train for every eventuality and we will go out there and fight for the title.’