Chelsea’s top 4 finish is likely over but hope remains for Europa League glory

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If Chelsea do indeed end the Premier League season outside of the top 4 then they went out of the battle with a whimper after a 2-2 draw against Burnley at Stamford Bridge.

It was a game that the Blues fought hard for in the first half as they went behind in the early exchanges and by the 25th minute mark the game had already had 4 goals, echoing the excitement of the recent Champions League fixture between Manchester City and Tottenham. But while both of those teams should finish top 4- City is guaranteed of course, Chelsea look like they have blown that chance.

Chelsea are level with Tottenham on points which is all well and good but Tottenham have a spare game which they will play tonight, at home against the bottom club Huddersfield, in what should be an inevitable, comfortable win. There is also the case of Arsenal making that top 4 charge and it looks like both Chelsea and Manchester United will be the teams to miss out on Champions League football next season.

A win was expected against Sean Dyche’s Burnley and perhaps this match where Chelsea are playing a bottom half team at home summarised the clubs season in that they have stayed within their comfort zone and only looked like the team that coach Maurizio Sarri has a vision for when playing in the Europa League.

The Europa League has clearly become a priority for the club and they have been brilliant in a very tough competition. Beating Slavia Prague and scoring 5 goals past them in both legs was superb given how Prague had knocked out Europa League specialists Sevilla in the previous round.

Winning the competition is one major trophy and it is also a gateway into the Champions League even if the club do finish 5th or 6th, so there is all to play for. Chelsea will meet Germans Eintract Frankfurt, who are superb at home but wasteful away and the Blues will be favourites to advance to the final where they would meet either Valencia or a mouth watering clash against fellow Premier League team and Londoners Arsenal. Perhaps the neutral wants the all English final but football has never been that easy to predict.

As for the league, one wonders if the egos of the club have the fight left in them. Chelsea’s next match is away to Manchester United in another potentially explosive game as both will be rolling the dice, perhaps for the final time to reach a top 4 spot. In between their Europa League semi-final they will play Watford at home and round up the season with an away match against Leicester.

It’s very conceivable that Chelsea won’t win another game this season and it is very clear that all of their eggs are in the Europa League basket.

 

Napoli’s season is on the brink- did Sarri see this coming?

 

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On paper the plan made perfect sense. Hiring Carlo Ancelotti to replace Maurizio Sarri was a big statement for Napoli- he’s of course a big name manager in the football world who just with his arrival elevated the club’s brand. Following the James Bond themed announcement of his hire, the former Milan and Real Madrid manager embraced the city from day one and on the pitch immediately showed he was determined to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes.

Even before fatigue could accumulate, Ancelotti started rotating his players, as a matter a fact he used twelve different lineups to start the season. But that wasn’t the only thing Carletto did differently than his predecessor- he also showed a lot of tactical flexibility with formations while also keeping some of the best elements of Sarriball.

While last season Napoli prioritized winning the scudetto over all other competitions, Ancelotti’s version of the partenopeisaved their best performances for Europe. Even though they were eliminated in this edition of the group of death of the Champions League, Napoli’s performances against Liverpool at the San Paolo and in France against Paris St Germain, gave many a lot of hope they could actually win the Europa League where ironically they could face their former manager Maurizio Sarri.

Considering that by the start of 2019 Juventus had a huge lead in Serie A, the partenopei had all of their eggs in the Europa League basket, but after last night’s loss to Arsenal in London, their season is on the brink of turning into a failure when they take to the pitch against the Gunners to try to overturn the 0-2 deficit.

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In a way Maurizio Sarri saw this coming. After surpassing the 90 points threshold last season and not winning the scudetto, something that had never happened in Serie A’s history, Sarrireportedly felt that he had taken this group of players as far as they could go and that the only way was down- he decided it would be best to move on rather than oversee the decline of his hometown club.

There also were growing expectations in the city of Naples after such an intriguing title race against Juventus, the bar had been substantially raised and nothing short of winning a significant trophy (Coppa Italia wasn’t going to cut it) was going to cut it with the fans. Unless Napoli can somehow overturn the result from the first leg, for many this will be considered a very disappointing season when you consider how much bigger the gap with Juventus is points wise.

Taking a step back in Serie A was to be expected also because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Juventus, but there also quite a few internal reasons at Napoli that Sarri almost certainly saw coming. In the NFL the team that loses the Super Bowl typically doesn’t even make it to the playoffs the following, in part because of the hang over effect of losing after getting so close to the promised land.

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While Napoli received a significant spark from new additions Fabian Ruiz and goal keeper Alex Meret, quite a few of the veterans on the squad took a step back. Hysaj went from being considered one of the best right backs in Serie A to being almost irrelevant, while Callejon is still very generous with his effort, he’s nowhere near as effective as he was under Sarri, Ghoulamand Albiol have dealt with injuries most of the season and even stand outs like Insigne and Allan have struggled in the new year after a very impressive start under Ancelotti, even Zielinski and especially Diawara failed to become replacements for Hamsikand Jorginho respectively.

To continue this trend, we’ve seen Arkadiusz Milik and Nikola Maksimovic- who for different reasons struggled to find space under Sarri- be arguably the only two Napoli players who improved on their performances under Ancelotti compared to the previous regime.

If the idea that Napoli’s current squad would inevitably take a step back this season was truly Sarri’smain motivation to move on, he’s so far being proven right- the only way to turn this narrative around is to go all the way in the Europa League- starting with the return leg against Arsenal when Napoli’s season will be on the brink.

Can Chelsea star Eden Hazard rise up to the occasion and derail Liverpool’s title dream?

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We already knew how great a player Eden Hazard was coming into the new English Premier League season  and there has been rumours surrounding the Belgian with a big money move to Real Madrid in the summer, but at the tail end of the season Hazard has to prove just how good he really is.

Hazard has scored 16 times and assisted in 12 other goals which is a fantastic record and Chelsea are now up to 3rd place. However the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United could well relegate the Blues to 6th, a position they have occupied for the last month.

All in all it hasn’t been a great season for Chelsea with their league title chances evaporating before Christmas and everyone will remember when they were destroyed 6-0 by the champions Manchester City.

Chelsea did reach the Carabao Cup final where they were unlucky to lose to Manchester City losing the final on the dreaded penalty shoot out. The club are in the Europa League quarter finals and Hazard has the opportunity to end his career with the London club by winning the competition.

Hazard has been brilliant with Chelsea and brilliant this season, but the problem for the 28 year old is he hasn’t been consistent. Surely that is what separates the great from the geniuses of the game? Can Hazard make the step up to Real Madrid? Yes he can but if he doesn’t perform on a regular basis, one wonders if the move could be a bad career one for him. Still the lure of playing for the side will be too great. Another question that must be posed is, does Zidane need or want him? We will find out in the summer months.

But back to now and the Premier League. And Hazard was showered with praise after his superb display against West Ham and he got a brace in that win. But with all due respect to West Ham, they are not of the same quality as Liverpool, and that is Chelsea’s next opponent.

The question is, can Hazard’s brilliance defeat Liverpool at Anfield? If Zidane is wondering about Hazard or any other top club for that matter they will be looking closely at a game where Liverpool have looked almost unstoppable this season, especially at home where they have yet to lose a game.

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If Hazard is that good and wants to be considered a different level player one suspects he is being asked to show it. Or will we get a quiet game from the maestro only summarising his career with one week looking great the next looking average.

Let’s not forget how big the Liverpool game is. Manchester City will be keeping a close eye on the game of course but this is massive also for Chelsea in trying to finish in the top four.

If Hazard cannot help deliver a top 4 place for Maurizio Sarri’s team may be he will always be known as a very good player instead of a brilliant one which he has been touted about for some time. Bottom line is he needs to show his worth against a quality side away from home like Liverpool, and this weekend he is going to be presented with that very chance.

EPL Player of the Week – Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

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When a player stands out head and shoulders above the vast majority of the rest, there will always be suggestions that there will be a big money move in his not-too-distant future. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham have seen it while in the Premier League, while Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane experienced similar things during their respective times in La Liga and Serie A. The modern day equivalent to those transfer rumblings would have to be the not so curious case of Eden Hazard, whose performances in recent months have once again sparked speculation that he could be on his way out of Chelsea this summer. One thing Hazard has in common with all of the aforementioned players? Real Madrid.

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Sarri to put more trust in Chelsea’s youngsters?

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One of the things Maurizio Sarri has been most criticised for this season is his unwillingness to trust youngsters. Callum Hudson-Odoi was the main absentee who got people talking about this, but there are other examples within the Chelsea team.

With the potential of a transfer ban looming, if Sarri remains as Chelsea manager past this season he will need to start using the talented academy graduates at his disposal. Throughout the campaign it seemed as though this was something the Italian wasn’t happy to do, though Thursday’s win against Brighton & Hove Albion could be the signal for change.

Sarri had declared Hudson-Odoi ready to play shortly before the Brighton game. He ended up giving the teenager his first ever Premier League start, while also giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek his first league start of 2019.

Both players duly repaid his trust. Hudson-Odoi assisted the opening goal of the game when he breezed part Anthony Knockaert, before firing a low ball into Olivier Giroud who bundled the ball home.

Having scored a controversial winner against Cardiff City, Loftus-Cheek was the scorer of Chelsea’s final goal as they won 3-0. He received the ball from Eden Hazard on the turn before calmly side footing it into the top corner from outside the box.

Both of the goal contributions from the Chelsea youngsters were executed with supreme skill and confidence. They must have seen this game as a chance to prove they should be in the line up for the latter stages of this season; they certainly took the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.

The question now is whether Sarri will continue to play them from the start of games in the league. Both players have impressed numerous times in the Europa League and with their latest performance, it would seem they’ve done everything possible to force their manager’s hand.

Tomorrow night will see Chelsea host West Ham United, with a chance to go from fifth to third in the table- though Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will both have a game in hand on them. Each match between now and the end of the season will be vital for Chelsea going forward, as well as for Sarri’s job security. If he decides to play the youngsters against West Ham and beyond it will be a sign that he truly trusts them.

There is of course plenty more talent outside of Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi, which Sarri can utilise this season and next if he wishes. The likes of Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu, 22 and 18 years old respectively, are likely to be deployed in the Europa League and could be used sparingly in the league.

Looking ahead to next season, players such as Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Mason Mount -who have all impressed on loan in the Championship this campaign- could all be brought back into the Chelsea fold.

Chelsea have had an incredible talent production line for years, which has been criminally under used by those in the Chelsea hot seat. Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek could be heading up the group that finally make their mark on the first team.

 

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Despite Cardiff victory, it is hard to see Sarri still being Chelsea manager next term

Neil Warnock was not happy in the slightest. The combustible Yorkshireman has never been shy in venting his anger at match officials, but even by his standards this was quite the tirade.

“”It’s difficult because I am really flat. I am so proud of my players,” the Cardiff City manager said after his side’s controversial 2-1 defeat by Chelsea on Sunday.

“To get let down by the officials… roll on VAR. We worked three weeks for this but to get let down by decisions… no major decisions went for us. They don’t realise what is at stake. If I was a Burnley or a Brighton fan, they will be absolutely loving it today.

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Maurizio Sarri doesn’t deserve the criticism he has faced at Chelsea

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With Chelsea’s impending two window transfer ban it might be an idea that the club get behind Maurizio Sarri and start properly backing him. It has felt unfair that the Italian has endured so much criticism this season, and it hasn’t just been from the board but also some of the players and even the fans.

Some fans are calling for his head which just seems bizarre when we look at the plain facts. The club are still in with a chance of a top 4 finish, they reached the Carabao Cup final and they are in the quarter finals of the Europa League. How has this been a bad season?

Granted a league title was shot away months ago, but did anyone expect Chelsea to challenge for a title this season? And yes there have been disappointing defeats and they have lost 7 games this season. But take out Liverpool and the least amount of games lost is Manchester City with 4 defeats, so only 3 more is not a disaster. Plus shouldn’t we remember that the Blues started the season off so strongly, going the first three months without a defeat?

Of course fans will see backwards steps- the 6-0 loss to Manchester City just underlined who is the boss right now, but again let’s remind ourselves of Chelsea’s 2-0 win over the same side at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Had that result happened now Sarri would be praised. Plus in the Carabao Cup where they had just lost 6-0 to City they faced them again, with everyone expecting another cricket score it didn’t happen. The match finished 0-0, Chelsea were accused of being boring, when in reality they had quickly learned from their mistakes. In the end perhaps it didn’t matter as they lost in the most cruellest ways to penalties.

Sarri has also been accused of not being able to deploy his players in the right positions and making some odd selection choices. One of these is the outstanding emerging talent of Callum Hudson-Odoi. Sarri has not been picking the 18 year old as regularly as fans would have liked. But at the same time Sarri is being careful with the prodigy and at the end of the day is still giving him a run in the Europa League, so he is gaining experience.

With the transfer window ban and the possibility that key player Eden Hazard will leave at the end of the season maybe Chelsea need to back Sarri more. Isn’t this is a case of not appreciating what you have, after all Chelsea have made that mistake countless times before.

Crunch time for Chelsea as business end of the season approaches

With the March international break now over, the business end of the club campaign is upon us. Premier League clubs have just seven, eight or nine fixtures left to fulfil, while the Champions League and Europa League are both approaching their denouement. At this stage there is still everything to play for both domestically and on the continent, but a few bad results could leave a team’s ambitions in tatters.

More than most of their Premier League rivals, the next couple of months will be pivotal for Chelsea. Maurizio Sarri’s side are three points adrift of fourth-placed Arsenal in the race for the two remaining Champions League qualification spots, while they are due to take on Slavia Prague in the quarter-finals of the Europa League next month. Off the field they are also waiting to hear the outcome of their appeal against a two-window transfer ban, which was handed to the west Londoners for breaking FIFA rules regarding the signing of under-18 foreign players. There is also the small matter of Sarri’s future, not to mention the persistent rumours linking star man Eden Hazard with a big-money summer switch to Real Madrid.

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Chelsea can sell Eden Hazard as long as they can keep Hudson-Odoi

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Forget about Eden Hazard, it is clear that the Belgian international does not want to play for Chelsea anymore and looks set to move to Real Madrid in the summer. Hazard not being a part of the Chelsea first team would have seemed crazy a year ago but time has moved on and Chelsea need to think with their front feet, the reason is down to Callum Hudson-Odoi who even at 18 looks like the real deal.

Hazard has been one of the best players in Europe in the last few seasons and will be a loss for Chelsea, but there is no point in the club trying to keep him. True as it stands Chelsea would ideally like to keep Hazard given that they have been handed a two window transfer ban by UEFA- although the club are appealing about that. But at the same time selling Hazard to Real Madrid will generate at least £100m if not more and the Blues have Hudson-Odoi who already looks like a superb talent.

Hudson-Odoi made his debut for England earlier in the week and looked like he had been playing international football for years. Yes it was against Montenegro, but it was away from home against a nation that have made life difficult for England in the past, and yes the youngster will be up against better quality in years to come. But it was his assurance on the ball and confidence that would have taken anyone back, and his future is a bright one in the game.

It is why Bayern Munich came calling, the German giants do not go after English talent so young If they do not spot someone special. At the time Hudson-Odoi was eager to join Bayern, and why not? How many young English players get the opportunities they deserve at the biggest Premier League clubs? But Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has given Hudson-Odoi starts in both the league and Europa League and Hudson-Odoi might just start to see the bigger picture.

That bigger picture is that if Hazard does leave as expected the middle attacking role could be opened up to him and surely it is a position that he will relish. He could even at such a young age be the main attacking player for a club like Chelsea, the biggest fish in the pond so to speak, which should convince him to stay.

What is certain is that the initial £35m that Bayern had offered Chelsea for the player is chicken feed. His value will keep rising, especially if he has a good Euro’s and right now Chelsea are in the position to get the best years out of the player and cash in. The Blues will be hoping that Hudson-Odoi feels the same way and it will be up to Sarri to convince the player to stay and that he will have a very pivotal role in the clubs next few years.

No regrets? That’s surely not the case for Maurizio Sarri

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Everything was rosy at the start. Back in October, Chelsea were part of the chasing pack who were hoping to keep pace with Manchester City and Liverpool in the race for the Premier League title.

The Blues had also knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup at Anfield thanks to a fantastic late strike from Eden Hazard.

Things were going great for Maurizio Sarri. There were no questions about his decision to leave Napoli and try his hand at managing in the Premier League. It looked like he had chosen correctly.