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Pat Nevin: For the cause

The Blues may have lost the Carabao Cup final on penalties but Pat Nevin, who was at Wembley covering the game for Chelsea TV, watched plenty that worked and plenty of hard work, as he details in this week’s column…

Rarely has a trophy been decided by such incredibly small margins as we witnessed at Wembley on Sunday. Oh all right, our Champions League win in Munich was similarly tight but you get the drift.

Had we scored one of the couple of chances we had in the second half then Chelsea would have been winners and deserved winners too. Then there were the penalties. David Luiz hit the post and it stayed out, Raheem Sterling hit the bar and it went in. Indeed Kepa nearly saved the second penalty but it sneaked in under his left arm. On such tiny margins are games and indeed the destinations of trophies decided.
 

I thought Chelsea’s tactics were very clever, even streetwise. After what looked like a far-too-open outlook at the Etihad in the 6-0 defeat, in contrast this was a study in intelligent, well-organised thinking. The free-scoring Manchester City had plenty of the ball in the first half but having accepted their constant possession, in reality there were precious few real chances for the current Premier League champions. It was not dissimilar to the way Chelsea out-thought City back in December and got the win.

Clearly we had to defend well and stay ultra-focused in the hope and expectation that Pep’s men would tire and start to lose belief. This is exactly what happened and I would argue that Chelsea looked the more likely to score from about 55 minutes onward.

Nobody likes to lose a cup final but remember beforehand, the expectation from many people was that Chelsea could be thrashed in an embarrassing one-sided affair. That was demonstrably not the case in the end and what is more important was that every single player put in an incredible shift for the manager. The negative headlines about player power and the Kepa situation at the end ignore the fact that this group followed instructions to the letter for nearly two hours, and as I said, put Herculean efforts in for the cause.

For long periods at the start it wasn’t the 4-3-3 typical Sarri set-up but a 4-5-1 with Pedro and Willian sacrificing themselves to defensive duties from the off. The reaction from the Chelsea faithful was exceptional, particularly as they slowly realised that the first-half stranglehold was turning into a second-half slug fest.

Both Toni Rudiger and David Luiz were immense at the back with the latter always brave enough to take the ball in tight situations and play passes from there. The defending itself was peerless. In the second half I thought the performance of N’Golo Kante was right up there with his best for the club and that is saying something! Had he scored the winner which he almost did at the end of a brilliant move, it would have been a fitting ending. It would have also underlined just how spectacularly he has adapted to his new position.

- Read: David Luiz and Toni Rudiger – views on cup final game plan
 

When all was said and done it was the two penalty misses that decided the game but few players ever blame their team-mates for missing in these circumstances. The pressure is huge and being brave enough to step up excuses them in the eyes of colleagues for not scoring.

The Kepa situation at the end was of course not particularly helpful. The manager must have the final decision on substitutions and Kepa will know that by now even if emotion took over in the moment. Clearly our keeper thought he was fit enough to continue, and indeed he was, but he couldn’t know the boss’s thinking.

Maybe the manager felt that taking a chance with his previously injured hamstring wasn’t worth the risk. He could have been very badly injured leaping to make a penalty save that could have kept him out for months. Why do that when you have one substitution and another classy keeper left? He might even have thought that Willy Caballero was a better penalty saver full stop; other managers have changed goalies before a penalty shoot-out for exactly that reason. He could have been thinking that Willy knows the City players better and that could have helped psyche Sterling and co. out. It will be dealt with internally and if not forgotten, its importance will soon fade. I think everyone at Chelsea can spot a bandwagon and even a witch hunt a mile away by now, so we move on.

In the end and far more importantly it was a good, hard-fought display and if that attitude is kept for the rest of the season then a top-four finish and a long run in the Europa League is still a distinct possibility.

Also the change in tactics, particularly playing Eden up front, was well received by most. He was in fine form when we got the ball to him but most importantly it allowed us to play 4-5-1 and keep him on the pitch. For all his incredible ability, both Pedro and Willian are a little more suited to the defensive duties. That style with Gonzalo Higuain up top and Eden tracking back as an auxiliary left full-back probably would not have been so sturdy.
 

So much now depends on the game against Spurs tomorrow night and I expect it will be a cracker. They are far from unbeatable as lowly Burnley showed at the weekend and of course, the last game at the Bridge between the two was the semi-final of the Carabao Cup which saw Chelsea win through in the end.

Most Chelsea fans I talked to on the way back from Wembley were very philosophical about the day. City are a top side and we ran them as close as anyone could without winning. More importantly it was a team ethic that gives us greater hope of beating our north London rivals. That defeat up north would have deflated Spurs at the weekend but that is probably offset by the extra 120 minute Wembley workload for our lads and a day’s less rest.

Maybe in hindsight the most important things about Sunday will be the performances from Ruben Loftus Cheek and Callum Hudson Odoi. Both looked brilliantly confident when they came on. It stood out that every time Callum got the ball he was closed down in a panic by at least two City players.

Often Leroy Sane tracked all the way back to help out Oleksandr Zinchenko, changing the focus and balance of the game. There was even one occasion when Kyle Walker sprinted all the way from the other full-back position to help out the young Ukrainian full-back. It tells the story that even City are frightened of our youngster. I expect Callum will get more and more minutes as the season progresses which will cheer everyone at the club. A start against Spurs is not out of the question.
 

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