One step forward, two steps back. That has been the story of Chelsea’s 2019 and the trend continued with Sunday’s 2-0 defeat by Everton, a result which leaves Maurizio Sarri’s side as outsiders in the race for the top four.
Not for the first time, Chelsea relied on a moment of magic from Eden Hazard to get them out of jail. A goal down to Wolverhampton Wanderers in second-half stoppage time on Sunday, the Belgium international stepped up to find the net with a superb strike from just outside the box. That goal prevented a second loss of the season against Nuno’s men and extended the Blues’ unbeaten run to six games.
A week after the substitution fiasco at Wembley in which he refused to come off the pitch before Chelsea’s penalty shoot-out defeat by Manchester City, Kepa Arrizabalaga was back in the starting XI for Sunday’s clash with Fulham. The spotlight was therefore on the world’s most expensive goalkeeper throughout the west London derby, so Maurizio Sarri will have been relieved to see the Spaniard deliver one of his best performances since joining Chelsea from Athletic Club last summer.
Maurizio Sarri badly needed that.
A much-improved performance in Sunday’s League Cup final defeat by Manchester City was overshadowed by an embarrassing debacle which saw goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga ignore instructions from his manager and stay on the field despite substitute Willy Caballero being lined up to replace him ahead of the penalty shoot-out. That incident was the big talking point coming out of the Wembley showpiece, so much so that Chelsea’s overall display had largely been forgotten by the time Tottenham Hotspur rocked up at Stamford Bridge for a pivotal London derby on Wednesday night.
Given that Maurizio Sarri is under pressure and Manchester United are the opposition, we can expect Chelsea to field a full-strength starting XI in their FA Cup fifth-round clash with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side on Monday night. With United now having overtaken the Blues in the race for fourth spot, Sarri knows that cup competitions could play a big part in determining his future at Stamford Bridge.
It seems strange to say now, but Chelsea actually began brightly in Sunday’s clash with Manchester City. The visitors to the Etihad Stadium made their intentions clear early on, pressing high up the pitch from the very first whistle in an attempt to disrupt their opponents’ build-up play. To an extent, it worked: City, who have grown accustomed to visiting sides camping on the edge of their own penalty area, initially looked uncomfortable, but their superior quality ultimately told – and to devastating effect.
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.
In the end, the decisive goal came from the boot of a defender. After Eric Dier and Lucas Moura had failed to convert from 12 yards, it was down to David Luiz to score the winning penalty in Thursday night’s shoot-out against Tottenham Hotspur. The Brazilian made no mistake, slotting home the final spot-kick to book Chelsea’s spot in the final of the League Cup at their expense of their London rivals.
When Andros Townsend fired the ball past Alisson at Anfield on Saturday afternoon, it was not just Crystal Palace fans who were celebrating. Supporters of Manchester City, who began the weekend four points behind leaders Liverpool in the race for the Premier League title, were also full of cheer as they contemplated a repeat of the upset which saw Roy Hodgson’s men win 3-2 at the Eithad Stadium last month.
Following Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday, the pressure was back on Manchester City ahead of their clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Reds had extended their lead at the top of the Premier League table to seven points with their success on the south coast, meaning that Pep Guardiola’s side could not afford to draw or lose against a team who had performed very well against them earlier in the campaign.