Manuel Pellegrini's goalkeeper gamble pays off for Manchester City
LONDON -- Manuel Pellegrini is not the biggest risk-taker in the game, but the Manchester City manager pulled off the gamble of a lifetime in his team's Capital One Cup final victory over Liverpool at Wembley.
The Chilean elected to play Willy Caballero in goal instead of regular No. 1 Joe Hart. The decision could easily have backfired, but the reserve goalkeeper not only made a point-blank save from Divock Origi in extra time of the 1-1 draw but also made three fine stops in the penalty shootout, which City won 3-1.
"If I could choose to win any way, it would be this," Pellegrini said. "With Willy the hero."
For the first 83 minutes of the match, Caballero's claims to heroism looked as unlikely as a Liverpool goal. Fernandinho had put City into the lead four minutes after halftime, and Pellegrini's team missed chance after chance to secure the victory in normal time. Before Philippe Coutinho's equalizer with seven minutes left, it looked like another goalkeeper would make the headlines -- and not in a positive manner.
Every time Simon Mignolet takes to the pitch, the Kop holds its breath. When the ball comes into the Liverpool area, it seems like someone has rolled the dice. The Belgian is prone to mistakes, and against City, he added to his growing list of howlers.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had taken a risky decision himself by selecting Lucas Leiva at centre-back to partner with Mamadou Sakho instead of Kolo Toure. Liverpool's defensive difficulties got worse after 25 minutes, when Sakho was forced to leave the field after an ugly clash of heads with Emre Can.
By then, Sergio Aguero had hit the post. The City striker lurked on Lucas' shoulder with malicious intent, ran onto a through-ball and turned away from the Brazilian while Sakho stumbled and spun under the effects of the head injury. Aguero's shot rapped the base of the woodwork.
It looked only a matter of time before City swept aside Liverpool's ragged back line with Toure, a third-choice defender, and Lucas, a second-choice midfielder, forming an unlikely partnership. Neither should shoulder the blame for City's goal, though.
David Silva's crossfield ball found Aguero on the edge of the box with Alberto Moreno covering. As Lucas came to help, Moreno failed to pick up Fernandinho's overlap. It was poor defending from the left back, but what happened next absolved the Spaniard of any subsequent finger-pointing. Fernandinho took Aguero's pass and shot across goal. Mignolet, at the near post, went down in slow motion, and the ball went under him. It seemed easier to save the shot than let it hit the net.
"We should not concede this goal," Klopp said. "Not from this angle. It should not be a goal."
The German was right to be angry, yet once his team started to chase an equalizer, Mignolet showed positive qualities.
As Liverpool hurled forward ever more frantically in search of a leveling goal, City became more dangerous on the break. As Klopp's team lost any semblance of shape, Yaya Toure began striding upfield with impunity. Fernandinho exploited the space behind Moreno, and the chances came with increasing frequency. Raheem Sterling spurned three golden opportunities against his former club, and referee Michael Oliver unaccountably failed to give a penalty when Moreno left a trailing leg to trip Aguero as Liverpool clung on.
Mignolet made breathtaking saves from Yaya Toure and Fernando. City were well on top. Liverpool had not had a shot on target. With the minutes ticking away, the Reds attempted a characteristically brainless attack, with the ball pinballing along the edge of the 18-yard box. It eventually squirmed out to Daniel Sturridge, who had been policed superbly by the excellent Vincent Kompany. Now the striker had a rare scent of goal, but his poorly hit shot found Adam Lallana. The winger hit the post from close range, but the ball rebounded to Coutinho, who placed it into the net from 12 yards.
"If we had lost the penalties, we might be talking about the chances we missed," Pellegrini said. "Fortunately for us, the misses did not count against us."
In extra time, the game became ragged. Yaya Toure gave up any pretense of tracking back. The big Ivorian is so physically imposing that he looks like a grown-up playing against schoolboys at times. Like an indulgent adult, he appears to play at half-speed to give his opponents a chance. There is an aura about him that suggests he could dominate, if only he could be bothered. He added to the impression when he picked up and manhandled Lallana, sparking a minor fracas late in extra time.
Caballero had one last save to make from Origi before the penalties. Liverpool started well, with Can looking assured from the spot, and when Fernandinho missed, it looked like Klopp's team had the advantage. Then the City goalkeeper took over the occasion. His first save from Lucas was an exceptional stop. Jesus Navas scored, and Caballero denied Coutinho. Aguero was clinical from the spot, and the Argentinian stopper made his best save from Lallana. All that was left was for Yaya Toure to complete Liverpool's misery. Toure sprinted away in celebration after his winning penalty. It was the quickest he had moved all afternoon.
James Milner was to be Liverpool's fifth man on the spot. Sturridge was not slated to take a kick. "He had cramp," Klopp said. "He could hardly walk. Anyone who could took a penalty."
Pellegrini said the secret of Caballero's success was his nerve. "He's a very good goalkeeper," the City manager said. "He waited for all the [Liverpool] players to shoot. He never guessed. That is why he saved three penalties."
Pellegrini will leave City at the end of the season and will be replaced by Pep Guardiola, but it is hard to imagine the Catalan playing his reserve goalkeeper instead of an England international in a final. Why did the 62-year-old decide to leave Hart out for such a big game?
"I gave [Caballero] my word," he said. The follow-up question was simple: Was that promise more important than winning a cup?
"My word is more important than football," Pellegrini said.
It seems the City manager was willing to risk almost everything at Wembley -- except his integrity.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.