Conor Gallagher’s three Carabao Cup final misses sum up Chelsea’s crisis

Chelsea 0-1 Liverpool (AET): The midfielder had a hat-trick of opportunities to win the Carabao Cup and this defeat could haunt him

Jamie Braidwood
at Wembley
Monday 26 February 2024 07:43 GMT
Gallagher reacts after missing another chance at Wembley
Gallagher reacts after missing another chance at Wembley (REUTERS)

And so the long walk began. The head dropped, the shoulders sank and Conor Gallagher ran his hand across his face for a final time, the pain of his three misses in the Carabao Cup final written deep in his eyes. Chelsea’s wait for domestic silverware and their Wembley curse continues, with six straight defeats in domestic finals, three of them now to Liverpool. Yet Gallagher, on a different day, would have been a worthy match-winner for this Chelsea, a symbol of a new era. He came off exhausted, largely very good in an otherwise sloppy and disjointed performance from his team, but three lung-bursting runs into the Liverpool penalty box brought three opportunities. They were wasted and Chelsea, by the end, could have no complaints after they were stunned by Virgil van Dijk’s winner.

But the cruel twist in the fairytale start to Jurgen Klopp’s final season at Liverpool is that this will haunt Gallagher, perhaps for even longer than it will haunt Chelsea. It is abundantly clear how much this all means to Gallagher, the boy from the Chelsea academy desperate for the opportunity to be the boy done good. In many ways he already is, a senior player for Chelsea at 24, an England international. Yet he can feel like a temporary answer. Linked with a move away every six months, every transfer window brings a reminder that, for Chelsea’s financial accounts, he is more valuable to them if he leaves rather than if he stays.

And Gallagher, you sense, knows this. Chelsea’s season and, ultimately, Mauricio Pochettino’s future, now comes down to the FA Cup. After that, Todd Boehly will return to his billions and Chelsea will go back to the transfer market, while taking stock of the resources available to finance it. Gallagher understands how important it therefore is for him to cement his place in Chelsea’s history, to not just come through and survive this confused era, but to thrive in it and lead the club forward on his own terms.

Pochettino consoles Gallagher at full-time
Pochettino consoles Gallagher at full-time (Getty Images)

And at Wembley, before he was taken off in the early minutes of extra time, he had a hat-trick of opportunities to do just that, three moments to turn an inaccurate and hesitant performance from Chelsea irrelevant in a single stroke. You often win finals without playing well, even the greatest teams have, and a single finish past the inspired Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher would have dismissed anything else. Twice set up by Cole Palmer, Gallagher’s flick that hit the post was instinctive and unlucky; the other, when Gallagher was played through and had more time, was made far too easy for Kelleher to smother. Later, when Nicolas Jackson laid off a third chance, Gallagher placed it over.

And that, apart from a late scramble that Kelleher kept out, was that for Chelsea and their limited spirit. After the final chance, Gallagher stayed down for a long time, face buried in the turf. Though he is not, of course,  solely to blame: Pochettino asked not to be judged on whether or not he finally ended his wait for a trophy in English football, and Chelsea would have been met with the same damning assessment whether they had taken Liverpool or penalties or not, following Van Dijk’s dramatic header.

Liverpool, who finished with as many teenagers as senior players in their line-up, resembling a Carabao Cup side that would have looked under strength even if it was played in the second round, defeated Chelsea and their £1bn project. But Liverpool were not weakened by injuries - instead, they remained as a collective, stronger together than Chelsea’s first-choice team looked throughout the final.

For all the talk that Chelsea had turned the corner, that their resurgent form could have been the start of this young team, they just failed to convince. Second-best in the first hour, Chelsea had been handed a reprieve when Van Dijk’s first header was disallowed. The red smoke hanging thick in the air the sign of a premature celebration, denied by VAR when Van Dijk’s blocker, Wataru Endo was stood offside as Andy Robertson delivered. It signalled a turning point for Chelsea. Palmer began to take charge, at least, winning his battle with Roberson, creating those golden moments for Gallagher that Chelsea were left to rue.

Gallagher was denied by the oustanding Kelleher
Gallagher was denied by the oustanding Kelleher (Getty Images)

But it should never have been that close. The contest was full of signs, glaringly obvious or otherwise, that Liverpool should have had no chance. The sight of Liverpool’s triple change of Jayden Danns, James McConnell and Kostas Tsimikas, two teenage academy products and a third-choice left-back, came moments before Mykhailo Mudryk, Chelsea’s £89m winger, was summoned. It highlighted the stark contrast in resources available to Klopp and Pochettino.

Chelsea, after all, came into the final with a settled team and on their best run of the season. It proved a false dawn. Djordje Petrovic, the goalkeeper, was their man of the match and only Palmer, Levi Cowill, Gallagher and Malo Gusto came away having had good games. Yet even that was a stretch. At the other end of the scale, Enzo Fernandez and Moises Caicedo were dominated by Alexis Mac Allister and Endo, then by McConnel and Harvey Elliott. Chelsea’s £222m duo again failed to show their worth when it mattered.

As Pochettino waved and flapped his arms, it summed up Chelsea’s struggles, most of which was their own doing. A jumpy and frantic start led to a hesitant and inaccurate display. Chelsea were sloppy and often off the pace, particularly in the midfield and between Caicedo and Fernandez. Although accidental, Caicedo’s challenge on Ryan Gravenberch that led to the Dutch international being stretchered off showed how Chelsea were simply off it in several departments.

Pochettino puffed out his cheeks as passes were hit straight out of play, or rolled under studs. He grew increasingly exasperated and so did Chelsea. Gallagher could have changed that. And, in the years to come, perhaps he will be the one who has the most to pay.

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