Kepa Arrizabalaga showed that sometimes, it is best when he is left to do his own thing on the pitch. The Chelsea goalkeeper has not had the finest week in his career. But at Craven Cottage yesterday the young Spaniard showed just why Chelsea paid a club record £71.6 million for him last summer. The 24 year old pulled off a string of fine saves to help earn Chelsea a win that puts them right back in the fight for the top four, two points behind Manchester United with a game in hand.
A week after the Spaniard had been at the centre of a massive row by refusing to be substituted by manager Maurizio Sarri at Wembley as Chelsea lost the Carabao Cup final, which caused him to be fined a week’s wages, have to apologize to his manager and teammates, and then dropped for the midweek win over Tottenham, Arrizabalaga showed just what all the fuss is about.
A brilliant save near the end of this tense clash from Aleksandr Mitrovic’s close range header broke Fulham hearts as they strived for the win under new caretaker manager Scott Parker. It had followed four other fine stops – and a lucky escape when he dropped the ball. Sarri admitted that had it been any other keeper than the expensive Spaniard, he might have been axed permanently: “With another man, yes. I could have done it another way. But considering the man, no.”
“I told him he was playing two hours before. It was normal. Kepa is a man, understood what happened, and reacted very well. I could have killed him, but I think this was right. Now we are only two points off the top four. We keep fighting until the last minute of the last match.”
It was a tough one to take for Parker, who saw a marginal offside rule out an injury time equaliser from Ryan Sessegnon. It is now eight defeats in their last nine league games, and his task of keeping Fulham up looks a formidable one. It was in the first 45 minutes when the damage was done. Gonzalo Higuain should have put Chelsea ahead early on but steered his header wide.
Arrizabalaga was a lucky boy when he dropped the ball under challenge from Ryan Babel, but managed to recover and grab the ball. Two minutes later Chelsea were ahead. Cesar Azpilicueta’s low cross was met by Higuain on the volley to leave Sergio Rico helpless. It was the Argentine’s third goal in eight games but Fulham hit back straight away.
From Sessegnon’s cross, Mitrovic struck a volley that Arrizabalaga did superbly to tip over the bar. But from the corner, Chelsea’s marking was all over the place, as Callum Chambers shot home. Chelsea wobbled – but Willian played in Hazard who laid it off for Jorginho – booed by Chelsea fans last week – to strike beautifully into the top corner. It was his first goal from open play for the club.
Chelsea kept missing chances, which kept Fulham’s hopes alive. Higuain should have added a third but shot wastefully over, and then Rico denied him with a fine save. Willian hit the side netting and Fulham got away with a penalty shout when the ball looked to have hit Tim Ream’s hand. Sarri’s side simply could not close the game down, and when Mitrovic got clear he should have done better than shoot over.
But it was Arrizabalaga who made sure of the points in the end. First he turned away Tom Cairney’s shot, then grabbed Andre Frank Anguissa’s low effort, pushed away Bryan’s drive, and then, with the best stop of the lot, twisted in mid-air to push away Mitrovic’s header.
It was hard on Parker’s side. But they had showed fight. The former Cottagers skipper said: “Last night I didn’t sleep. But our second half was amazing. I want to reclaim Fulham’s identity, bring the fans back. I feel we did that.”