It was only penalties, and it was close, but it might have been in some way symbolic.
After a week when La Liga has been dismissed, and there have been justifiably grave concerns about the extreme strength in depth at a handful of European “super clubs”, one of the biggest seals the first silverware of the season by beating one of Spain’s upstarts thanks to their bench. Substitute Kepa Arrizabalega – still the most expensive goalkeeper in the world – turned the tone and thread of this shootout by saving from Aissa Mandi, and then won it by saving from Raul Albiol.
That denied Villarreal the manner of victory they enjoyed over Manchester United in the Europa League final to get here. It also denied them what would have been just their second ever trophy.
Chelsea for their part celebrated with some vigour, and there was clear delight for Kepa, but it is still just another trophy to them.
While that habit of victory is precisely the attitude that the hierarchy want to instil, Thomas Tuchel will still probably be more concerned about the injury to goalscorer Hakim Ziyech.
That was the other frustration of this game, even in victory. It went the distance on the eve of the new Premier League season.
You could say it was Ziyech’s typically bad luck that he again got injured just as he was picking up a bit form – and again got injured in pre-season – but this felt even more unfortunate than usual. The Moroccan had arguably been Chelsea’s best player in these games. He was sparkling in his time on the pitch in this one, and you could see how much the goal meant to him.
There was a primal roar about the celebration, which would have felt a bit much given it was just the Super Cup, but it was clearly about Ziyech’s feeling for the game right now.
That made the injury all the crueller, especially given it came from something so innocuous. The hope is it isn’t serious, but the goal was another sign of what might yet be from the playmaker.
It wasn’t just about his finish, mind. The entire move was divine, and sweeping. Marcos Alonso played the finest through ball right up the line for Kai Havertz to run into, the German not needing to break stride as he played a superb ball in to Ziyech.
The forward finished in the same flowing move, albeit with the added flourish of a clipped conversion. It was brilliant.
Chelsea were good in this period, Timo Werner having one difficult chance well saved by Sergio Asenjo, before the goalkeeper got down well to keep out Alonso.
The injury inevitably disrupted their rhythm, though, and saw Villarreal rally. They were the better side for long stretches after that, and well worth their eventual equaliser. Chelsea had been given plenty of warning about exactly that type of move, but could do little about it.
There is some real sharpness about the Spanish side’s play.
Boulaye Dia’s first opportunity came from some elegant angles, Edouard Mendy blocking brilliantly, but the goalkeeper could do nothing about their next big chance. There was little elegant about that, but it was emphatic. Gerard Moreno almost smashed the bar with an incredible volley from close range, that bounced back from just outside the line. The Spanish international – who did become almost as notorious for missing chances at Euro 2020 as Alvaro Morata – finally beat Mendy later on… only to find the post. He was evidently finding his range.
There is otherwise real precision to Villarreal’s play, which adds to their promise. There is also potential. In normal circumstances in La Liga, the best they could hope for would be to Spain’s fourth best side, but the financial decline of the big two means clubs like them can maybe dream bigger. Is there an outside chance of a full title challenge?
It should only embolden them that they again proved the equal of one of England’s “big four”. It was also conspicuous that the equaliser came shortly after N’Golo Kante left the pitch. Villarreal played right through that area, Dia returning the ball to Moreno with an improvised back-heel, before the forward finally got his goal.
One of the lingering issues is actually the very adventure of the team and the manager. Emery has done so well to restore Villarreal to this level, but he of course drastically withdrew once they actually got level in the game.
It was all the more striking since they’d been so on top. The switch was so abrupt. It was suddenly Chelsea sweeping through Villarreal again.
That was someway inevitable since they have a much deeper squad, and are much better suited to a long night with extra-time. Substitutes Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount might have made it that bit shorter going close twice.
To give Emery his due, Villarreal dug in, and took the European champions the distance.
Chelsea just had that bit more. They had the most expensive goalkeeper in history to bring on, a player they don’t even need.
Havertz’s miss didn’t matter. The trophy doesn’t matter that much. It might just say that bit more about Tuchel’s Chelsea, and that bit more about the wider game.
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