Gloves are off! Chelsea keepers Edouard Mendy and Kepa Arrizabalaga wait to see who Graham Potter trusts most

Team-mates and rivals: Mendy and Kepa  (AFP via Getty Images)
Team-mates and rivals: Mendy and Kepa (AFP via Getty Images)

For the first time since Edouard Mendy joined Chelsea in 2020, there is a genuine battle for the No1 shirt — and it is happening amid the backdrop of their stuttering Champions League campaign.

Kepa Arrizabalaga could well start ahead of fit-again Mendy tonight, when Chelsea know that a defeat against Milan will almost certainly see them knocked out.

The Spaniard has forced his way back into the reckoning since being dropped after his save percentage fell to a League-worst 54.5 per cent at the end of the 2019-20 season.

The helter-skelter nature of Chelsea’s defending back then — under the management of Frank Lampard — drove down his performances, with clubs targeting him at set-pieces after seeing him fail to claim a single corner over the season.

It all led to the Blues bringing in Mendy for £22million from Rennes in September of 2020. Thomas Tuchel then succeeded Lampard the following January and he opted to keep Mendy in goal, with the Senegalese going on to keep the joint-most clean sheets in a season in the Champions League.

Indeed, for Tuchel there was no doubt who the No1 was. Kepa has played just 29 matches across the last two seasons, while no player was an unused substitute more often under the German.

For the last four or five transfer windows, Kepa has been offered to clubs but Chelsea’s price tag put suitors off after they had paid a record £71million to sign him in the first place.

Valencia, Lazio and Napoli have been among a group of clubs interested in the Spain international but his £190,000-a-week wages have proven prohibitive to a potential loan move.

It would have been easy for Kepa to let his head drop but he has kept working to fix problems in his technique.

 (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
(Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Petr Cech and goalkeeper coach Hilario unpicked some bad habits learned in Spain. Under Tuchel, Kepa did improve, becoming a penalty specialist and helping his team to win the Super Cup through his heroics in the shootout against Villarreal last season.

Softly spoken, hard-working and professional, Kepa is a popular figure behind the scenes and has been a positive influence around Mendy in a tight-knit goalkeeping team.

Mendy’s minor knee injury had seen Kepa come in for him in Tuchel’s last game in charge of the club, at Dinamo Zagreb.

With the 30-year-old having also missed the club’s last two games, against RB Salzburg and Crystal Palace, Kepa has come in and performed well for new manager Graham Potter and, significantly, new goalkeeper coach Ben Roberts.

His displays have blown open the race for the No1 spot for the first time in more than two years.

“We are in no rush to label anyone a No1 or a No2 or anything like that,” Potter said last night. “Firstly, I want to help Kepa play and enjoy his football, as he did against Crystal Palace.

“I want to help Eddie get fit and ready to play, which he has done so far. We’ve got two goalkeepers and, in an ideal world, we want football to decide.”

The battle to be No1 has happened while Mendy’s contract renewal talks have been taking place with the new Boehly-Clearlake regime, who have had a first offer rejected because it was less than Kepa’s significant salary in west London.

Having also spent a world-record £273m in the last transfer window, Chelsea are weighing up more options in goal for summer 2023.

For now, Mendy and Kepa are battling each other for the shirt.

Mendy made several mistakes in goal for Chelsea before his injury, but the renewed competition stoked by Potter could drive him on.

Chelsea can ill-afford any mistakes tonight in the Champions League, where they find themselves bottom of Group E and likely to be eliminated if they lose.

A victory would get Potter’s men back on track, while a draw is likely to result in them needing to win all of their remaining three matches to reach the knockout round.

Against the Serie A champions, we will see who Potter really trusts to be his goalkeeper.