IIt must be very strange to be Édouard Mendy, a goalkeeper who seems doomed never to be in the spotlight. And when the spotlight falls on him, it often feels like it’s from a weird angle, that he’s not really appreciated for what he does best. Goalkeepers may struggle more than other positions to be well understood, but few seem as misunderstood as the Senegal international.
In a very slightly different world, one in which Gianluigi Donnarumma hadn’t made a very costly move and saved crucial penalties in penalty shootouts in the semi-finals and finals of Euro 2020, Mendy would have won a series of goalkeeper awards last year. In a very slightly different world, he would have been seen as the hero of Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final victory over Crystal Palace on Sunday. It could have been his redemption after the first leg mistake that cost Chelsea their Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid.
His save low to his left to deny a volley from Cheikhou Kouyaté nine minutes before half-time was breathtaking, but the impact may have been lost as the follow-up from Joachim Andersen, who fended off a post, was immediately declared off-side. Kouyaté’s effort would have counted, but the dramatic impact of Mendy’s intervention was lost when the flag was raised. (Of course, if Andersen had scored, there would have been plenty of lineups to say that Mendy, even deep, responding sharply to a snap through a crowded box, should have somehow pushed the ball away from opponents coming reverse.)
You can make almost any case with guesswork, but imagine the stoppage came late in the game when the score was still 1-0. Perhaps Mendy’s save wouldn’t quite have been considered one of Wembley’s great saves, a save to rival Peter Lorimer’s Jim Montgomery in 1973, Paul Peschisolido’s David Seaman in 2003 or Kasper Ben Chilwell’s Schmeichel last year, but he would have been hailed as a key figure. As it stands, his stop has just joined the mulch of a largely indifferent first half.
There were long stretches before halftime of all-purpose superclub versus mid-table football: the former probed too slowly to look truly menacing, and the latter resisted, sometimes offering the glimmer of a threat in the counter or on set pieces. After Saturday’s semi-final drama, it felt slightly underwhelming at times, not helped by the curious lack of enthusiasm evident from Chelsea fans as they squinted into the late afternoon sun.
As Palace fans, for whom such occasions remain a novelty, sang, cheered, bounced and waved their flags and balloons in a blur of red and blue, the feeling of weary familiarity on the other end was almost palpable: all that fuss over the penalties preventing ticket sales and the club didn’t even sell their allocation.
This, of course, is one of the many scourges of the superclub era that was ushered in by Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003. Than what should be events, days that previous generations would have recalled all a lifetime, become boring on a daily basis as Chelsea face Liverpool in both domestic cup finals this season. That whoever new owners might not inject £1.5 billion like Abramovich did, that those days might not be as frequent in the future, doesn’t yet seem entirely understood.
Wembley have simply become part of Chelsea’s routine to the extent that they’ve become part of Mendy’s model who doesn’t quite get the proper recognition. The last time they were here, for the League Cup final seven weeks ago, Mendy made a string of fine saves and was probably Chelsea’s man of the match, just for his part in the narrative as a supporting actor in another Kepa Arrizabalaga penalty shootout. drama (even when he was signed, for a paltry £22m from Rennes, he felt it was largely for not-Kepa).
While Arrizabalaga, who replaced Mendy at the end of extra time, left Liverpool 11 out of 11 penalties and skimmed his own kick, the standard line to follow seemed to be that removing Mendy had been a desperate mistake.
Maybe Chelsea would have won if Mendy had stayed, maybe his excellence during the game would have had a psychological impact. But the logic that he had just won a penalty shootout with Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations final seemed flawed. Egypt’s two failures on the spot then were an effort driven miles and another scraped through Mendy’s body. Mohamed Abdelmonem and Mohanad Lasheen may have cowered at Mendy’s presence, but his penalty record suggests few had been so impressed before. Mendy has many qualities as a goalkeeper, but saving penalties is not high on the list.
Nevertheless, he has since won another penalty shootout against Egypt, in the World Cup qualifiers. This drama, however, will be remembered, if remembered, beyond the two countries involved, as the industrial use of laser pens by Senegalese fans shone in the eyes of Mohamed Salah and others before Sadio Mané does not crush the winner.
Still, if next month’s FA Cup final against Liverpool ended in a shootout, it seems highly unlikely that Mendy would be pulled out again for Arrizabalaga, even if it was a change that worked in the Super success. UEFA Cup against Villarreal.
And the FA Cup final may provide its moment. If any Chelsea player deserves proper recognition before the uncertainty following the Abramovich era takes over, it’s Mendy.