Hazard and Higuain’s Huddersfield link-up gives Maurizio Sarri hope in top-four battle

It has been a turbulent few weeks for Chelsea, but fans of the club will hope that Saturday’s 5-0 demolition of Huddersfield Town proves to be a turning point in their season. Maurizio Sarri had come under intense scrutiny following last week’s 4-0 thumping by Bournemouth, a result which allowed Arsenal and Manchester United to move closer to the final Champions League qualification spot, but the manner of their victory at Stamford Bridge has relieved the pressure on the Italian – at least for now.

Beating Huddersfield at home, it should be said, is not enough on its own to win over the doubters. The Terriers have endured an extremely difficult season up to now, winning only two of their 25 league fixtures to sit 13 points adrift of safety with 13 matches left to play.

Nevertheless, there were elements of Chelsea showing which will have pleased Sarri, none more so than the form of Gonzalo Higuain. The January addition scored twice on his home Premier League debut, latching onto N’Golo Kante’s clever pass to break the deadlock in the 16th minute, before lashing home a brilliant strike from outside the box to make it 4-0 midway through the second half. His movement caused problems for Huddersfield’s backline throughout the 90 minutes, with the former Juventus marksman alternating between dropping deep to get on the ball and darting in behind to stretch the play. He may have struggled for much of his time at Milan earlier this campaign, but Higuain certainly looked sharp against Jan Siewert’s charges.

Just as significant as his goalscoring exploits was the Argentina international’s impressive link-up with Eden Hazard. The Belgian was regularly fielded in the No.9 role prior to Higuain’s arrival, and although his world-class talent meant he was still a threat in that unfamiliar role, there is no question that he is better suited to a left-sided berth.

Earlier this season, Hazard implied that he preferred playing with Olivier Giroud to Alvaro Morata due to the former’s superior hold-up play. Giroud does indeed excel at one-touch lay-offs around the penalty area, but he has never been the type of prolific centre-forward Chelsea are crying out for. On the evidence of Saturday afternoon, Higuain could offer the best of both worlds: regular goals and an ability to combine with and bring the best out of Hazard.

It is notable, for instance, that Higuain combined with Hazard 21 times on Saturday, which is significantly more than the previous high of 15 between Hazard and Giroud in the win against Cardiff City. In third place on the list is the 14 exchanged between the Belgian and Higuain in the aforementioned defeat by Bournemouth, while Morata’s highest tally of the season was just nine in the draw with Everton in November.

“I am really happy because apart from the goals he is very suitable to play next to Eden. For us it is very useful,” Sarri told Sky Sports after the game. “When he arrived he wasn’t at top physical condition, now he is improving and they are very suitable to play together, close to each other.

“We need consistency, so we have to continue. I am very happy with the match and I hope in the future we will not need a lost match to play with the right mentality. We know we have to fight until the end. It’s not easy in England to get top four. The league is so competitive here, there are six big teams. We have to work and we have to fight. We need to fight together otherwise we are in trouble.”

This weekend’s trip to the Etihad Stadium could bring Chelsea and their manager back down to earth, although one of the Blues’ standout performances of the season so far came in the reverse fixture against Manchester City. Sarri’s side ran out deserved 2-0 winners that day, battling back from being the inferior team in the first half to being in control after the break.

There has been much talk of Sarri’s style of play in recent weeks, but Chelsea will not be able to dominate the ball as they usually do on Sunday. Indeed, the identity of their opponents will necessitate the adoption of a more counter-attacking approach, which could actually work to their benefit given the speed and skill of Hazard and either Willian or Pedro Rodriguez. One thing is for sure, though: after getting back on track against Huddersfield on Saturday, Chelsea cannot afford a heavy defeat when they lock horns with City this weekend.

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