When Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harvey Elliott converted their penalties in Liverpool’s flawless shootout they turned and pointed at a 23-year-old goalkeeper making the 17th start of his senior club career, and who just happened to be the calmest person inside Wembley. They shared the intuition that Jürgen Klopp had when deciding it would be Caoimhín Kelleher, not Alisson, standing in Liverpool’s goal for the Carabao Cup final.
"If it works out, then it's all about Caoimhín. If it doesn't work out, then it's all about me." The Liverpool manager was correct, although he could never have predicted it would work out with Kelleher scoring the 11th and final penalty before the supposed spot-kick expert Kepa Arrizabalaga blazed Chelsea's 11th attempt high into the Wembley sky. Kelleher was a prolific goalscorer for Ringmahon Rangers in Cork before trying his hands at goalkeeper aged 13. He has evidently not forgotten the goalscoring art.
If it was a risk selecting the inexperienced Republic of Ireland international over a goalkeeper that Klopp has labelled the best in the world, it never showed. Kelleher, a most laid-back character, made a crucial save from Romelu Lukaku at the end of normal time and held his nerve throughout. The first of what Liverpool hope will be four trophies this season was a true collective effort, with 29 players used in the run to the final including all three senior goalkeepers.
Klopp wanted Kelleher to taste the high life not only as a reward for his impressive displays throughout the competition but to ensure his head his not turned by offers to play more regularly elsewhere. The final was therefore a resounding success for Liverpool as they secured a record ninth win in the League Cup.
The final itself was a test of Klopp’s improved resources. There were tears before kick off with Thiago Alcãntara distraught on the bench having been denied a first cup final appearance for Liverpool by an injury sustained in the warm-up. In came Naby Keïta for only his 13th start of another disrupted season for the Guinea international, with the 18-year-old Elliott promoted to the bench in his place.
The disruption to Klopp’s plans felt sizeable. Thiago has produced arguably the finest form of his Liverpool career in recent weeks as Manchester City’s lead at the top of the Premier League has been gradually eaten away. His passing range, vision and influence on Liverpool’s rhythm would have been ideally suited to vast expanse of Wembley. Instead, the Spain international had to make do with a consoling arm around the shoulder from Alisson.
Early impressions from Liverpool's rejigged midfield were not convincing. Keïta was in a close confrontation with N'Golo Kanté and swarmed by blue shirts as the mobility of Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount exposed Liverpool in the early stages. The first of several glorious chances Chelsea squandered came when Havertz glided in front of Keïta in the build-up to Pulisic shooting straight at Kelleher from close range.
A distinguishing feature of Klopp’s team, however, is how quickly and effectively they address tactical problems and, as in the rout of Leeds at Anfield on Wednesday, an uncertain start soon gave way to a performance of control and menace.
Keïta, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson forced Kanté and Mateo Kovacic deeper, breaking the supply to Chelsea's marauding front three in the process, and suddenly it was Édouard Mendy's goal being peppered with shots. Luis Díaz's seamless introduction to life at Liverpool continued with a high-energy, prominent display on the left. His willingness to track back and accept his defensive duties also endeared him to the red half of Wembley.
Liverpool lost some composure and creativity in midfield with Thiago’s untimely injury but Keïta’s willingness to support the attack brought Thomas Tuchel’s team a different problem. That was underlined when Sadio Mané found the midfielder arriving unmarked on the edge of the area and his low drive extended Mendy for the first time. Mané would have broken the deadlock from the follow-up but for a sublime reaction save from the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Keïta did not trouble the Chelsea defence again although he did settle into the physical contest with Kanté and looked to release Díaz at every opportunity. He was involved in the final’s first exchange of hand-bags when catching Mount with an accidental elbow as the Chelsea midfielder attempted to counterattack.
In the second half he was fortunate to escape a yellow card for catching the inside of Trevoh Chalobah's thigh with a raised boot. Keïta's number was up shortly afterwards when replaced by the veteran James Milner. An unexpected chance to shape an absorbing final had largely bypassed the £52.75m midfielder. But not Kelleher. His contribution in the shootout may have come with a shot instead of a save but it was decisive nonetheless.
Liverpool answered Klopp’s call to enhance their trophy collection. There could be more for this buoyant team before the season is out. - Guardian