We think of victory over Tottenham, of course, as one of life’s more dependable pleasures – always a joy, and a joy undimmed by repetition. Something to rely on when you need a lift, or at any other time, for that matter. But even against that ultra-familiar backdrop, last night’s win felt special.
It felt special for a number of reasons, not least the manner in which it was achieved. A team painted widely as being in mutinous disarray staged its second display of busily committed coherence in four days. Rudiger, Kovacic, David Luiz, Pedro… There were energised performances all over the place, and from players whose muscles had been put through the rigours of extra-time only a few hours ago. N’Golo Kante played like three men. And, unfortunately for Tottenham, all three of them were N’Golo Kante. Moreover, a defence broadly written off after the 6-0 defeat at City has now played three-and-a-half hours of football against two top-four attacks without conceding a goal (and, last night, without even permitting a shot on target).
Yes, you could say the second goal came out of nowhere, at exactly the right moment, and in slightly embarrassing circumstances. But it’s what you want from your strikers, isn’t it? They can be practically invisible for the best part of 85 minutes, but then make that one telling contribution that secures the points. Incidentally, did Trippier (to use the terminology) give Lloris ‘the eye’ there? A friend of mine thought so. I wasn’t close enough to be certain. Either way, it was one of those finishes which will play in the cinema of the memory for years to come, complete with its own popcorn.
Overall, this was pretty much the perfect salve for the disappointment of getting the short straw in the lottery of the penalty shoot-out at Wembley at the weekend and the attendant drama which has attracted so much attention since then. Misunderstandings obviously abounded in those final seconds of the match on Sunday, and they have certainly abounded in much of the coverage of it. Which is only to be expected, because, just briefly there, it was a confusing scene.
My personal misunderstanding, watching Signor Sarri disappear down the tunnel, from my seat just to the left of the goal at the Chelsea end, was that he had quit and that, consequently, we had just witnessed a managerial resignation, live in the stadium. Which, let’s face it, isn’t something you often see. Not even Kevin Keegan resigned live in the stadium. Indeed, according to the book by David Davies, Keegan tendered his official resignation from the England job in 2000 in a toilet cubicle in the Wembley home dressing room directly after England had been defeated by Germany, the cubicle providing some hastily improvised privacy for their sensitive discussions.
Of course, last Sunday my misunderstanding didn’t last long. A couple of seconds later, the manager re-emerged from the tunnel and re-joined the group. At which point my interpretation necessarily changed and I decided that he hadn’t resigned at all and that it must just have been a ‘venting’ moment.
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Relations will be round at Christmas, say, and the tension will reach a certain level, and you’ll find yourself quietly stepping into an empty adjacent room in order to let some of the frustration go by kicking a solid piece of furniture there, or screaming silently into the palm of your hand.
And then you go back in, kind of relieved, with nobody any the wiser, and the occasion continues. A friend of mine, who found his job and his working environment extremely frustrating, used to report going out to the car park at work and shouting as loudly as he could, before returning to his desk. He reckoned it made him feel much better about everything, and I’m sure it did. It’s a simple coping mechanism.
At Wembley on Sunday, I put Sarri’s brief disappearance into that category. Frustration had built and he needed a moment, away from the public gaze, to vent, knowing that he would feel better if he did so. And he found that moment in the tunnel. Much better there, surely, than taking it out on a crate of drinks bottles or against the side-wall of the opposition’s dug-out or on Mike Dean, which are among the ways that other managers have chosen to vent their frustrations recently, and for which you can sometimes end up getting fined, or worse. And then back Sarri came, and on we went.
As for Kepa, well, again, misunderstandings abounded and he paid for those misunderstandings last night with his place in the first 11. But I’ll say this much for him: at least he wanted to stay on the pitch. Yes, the manager’s word is final and, if your number is shown, the rule is that you go without pausing to ask why. But at least Kepa wanted to play – wanted to stay out there at exactly the point when the game’s destiny (a cup final, remember) was about to be placed on his shoulders in a penalty shoot-out. Personally I’d be much more worried about a player who refused to come on, or a player who wanted to come off. Someone like Carlos Tevez, for instance. Or someone like Paul Scholes.
Because, yes, on Sunday Kepa made a mistake. But it wasn’t like that time Tevez refused to warm up for Manchester City. And it certainly wasn’t like that time Scholes refused to play at all for Manchester United.
That was in 2001. Scholes had been dropped by Ferguson for United’s league game against Liverpool and, in a strop about it, the future manager of Preston North End and retired BT Sport pundit entirely declined to play in the following League Cup game against Arsenal. For that, he was fined a week’s wages.
And some people think Kepa should be banned for life – and that what we witnessed on Sunday was some kind of historic watermark in the annals of ‘player power.’ They probably ought to get some perspective, or at least take a breath. Maybe try going into another room and kicking something that’s not delicate or valuable, and then coming out again. It’s been known to work.