I’m not one for believing in fate, or for things being written in the stars. It’s as mythical as a club’s soul or United’s DNA. But as the whistle blew after 120 minutes of nerve-jangling action, I couldn’t say it to anyone around me but I was thinking it: wouldn’t it be typical if Willy Caballero ended up being City’s Wembley hero?
And so he was. A lot of apologies have flowed forth on social media and message boards since, following a week-long torrent of criticism and outright abuse at the prospect of Manchester City not fielding their strongest available side in a cup final. Now we all feel a bit stupid, kind of.
Well yes and no. Pellegrini’s comment that he would rather lose a trophy than his word should be taken in context of the words of a manager who had just won the match. I am not convinced he’d have said such a thing if City had lost, and if he had, I can just imagine the criticism that would fly his way. It would show he was a man of honour, but modern football sometimes demands honour is put to one side, the need for results and success all-consuming. Managers speak differently after matches according to their mood – a winning manager is much more likely to overlook the three penalties his team didn’t get that day than a losing manager who sees no fault in his own selections or players, but seeks to blame the referee instead.
But his word was gospel on this occasion, and he had promised Caballero the role. Pellegrini of course can see through guff and realise that the goalkeeper resembling a rabbit in headlights that we all witnessed against Chelsea is not an accurate portrayal of City’s back-up keeper, however many people go on Twitter saying he’s rubbish. He’s no worse than Mignolet for starters, and Pellegrini was hardly throwing the match like the previous week by selecting him. One of La Liga’s best keepers and all that, but it clearly hasn’t worked out over in England, though City fans are rarely happy with the reserve goalkeeper, somehow expecting a Peter Cech type figure to spend every week on the bench. It’s not easy playing an occasional game, and for Caballero, the future surely lies elsewhere – but he didn’t turn up at the Etihad off being rubbish at his trade.
And there’s part of the problem. Occasionally a club manages to get a really good keeper as a back up, as Chelsea have done quite successfully in recent years, but it’s not easy and it’s thus quite rare. Naturally a top class keeper will expect regular football, and even a very good one will. In fact, virtually all professional footballers will expect to play regularly, whatever their ability – it’s a short career and one you’d think they’d want to look back on as a memorable and exciting one.
So it’s no surprise that some managers use their number 2 keeper for cup matches, and Pellegrini is not alone in this regard. Joe Hart doesn’t really need a rest, but there is logic in letting Caballero take over for our Capital One Cup games and any FA Cup games against “lesser” teams. The problem is the dilemma it creates when a big game comes along. Do you keep to your word, or do you do what’s best for the fans and the team, by picking your strongest team?
I thought Pellegrini would wilt and pick Hart. After all, he’s on his way soon, as Caballero probably is, so a fall out or a back track would not have disastrous consequences for the squad. Even Caballero might have understood his reasoning, citing that form is a prerequisite for selection. But as we saw, this was not Pellegrini being stubborn as he is known to be, but being honourable, even if it ended up leavin him with egg on his face. Having brought Caballero from Malaga, I can well imagine he has a close bond with Caballero, and his word is therefore an absolute bond.
And have no doubt, this was a ballsy decision. Most of us would have washed our hands of the decision and picked our strongest eleven, leaving us immune from criticism after the match. But Pellegrini stuck to his guns, and now with hindsight we’re all glad he did. Caballero was superb, as any sane person with an iota of football knowledge knows he is capable of being, and having saved a penalty last weekend he continued the trend seven days later, doing something Hart doesn’t often do by not committing to the dive, thus turning the pressure onto the penalty taker.
And the biggest gamble of all, that waving of the white flag at Stamford Bridge, a decision that could have wrecked his legacy, paid off. Brave, stubborn, but in the end it turned out OK. A Capital One Cup trophy does not make this season a success, but it prevents it from being a disaster, providing a top four league spot is secured, and it is a trophy after all, another great day for the fans, and clearly meant a lot to the players too, who we hope will be galvanised now to push on further – for who knows what can still be achieved in this confusing season? As Aguero saluted his “grand willy”, I hope they are already looking to securing a repeat performance on Wednesday – with slightly sharper shooting hopefully thrown in for good measure.
And whilst this was perhaps the trophy that Pellegrini should not have taken seriously and blooded kid after kid, it has still given the fans two wonderful occasions to saviour. The best moments don’t have to be graded by the importance of the trophy. That winning penalty, the celebrations, the feeling as the cup was lifted, the euphoria too of the semi-final 2nd leg – those feelings will never dim, it’s part of being a football fan, and it was a long wait to experience them. Six out of seven victories at Wembley too for me is a fine record, long may it continue. And yesterday gave us a new story too, and there’s little better than seeing a player so often maligned get his moment in the sun and at least temporarily prove his doubters wrong. Yesterday was much-needed, the Liverpool history clique can crawl back into the woodwork for at least a few more days, and the team delivered when it was really needed again. So I raise a glass to you Willy Caballero – you used to be shite, but now you’re alright.