Maurizio Sarri backed Gonzalo Higuain to form a lethal partnership with Eden Hazard as the Chelsea striker’s first goals for his new club inspired a 5-0 demolition of Huddersfield on Saturday.
Blues boss Sarri had been under fire after Chelsea suffered their heaviest Premier League defeat for 23 years in a humiliating 4-0 loss at Bournemouth on Wednesday.
Amid reports the Italian is already in danger of the sack less than a year after taking charge, he was indebted to his old friend Higuain for lifting the gloom around Stamford Bridge.
Higuain, signed on loan from Juventus at Sarri’s behest after their successful spell together at Napoli, opened his account early in the first half of Chelsea’s biggest win of the season.
It was the start of an influential display from the Argentine and, with Hazard free to return to his preferred role on the flanks after a spell up front, Chelsea looked far more vibrant.
“When Higuain arrived he wasn’t at the top of his physical condition. Now he is improving. Apart from the goals, my feeling is he is really very suitable to play close to Hazard,” Sarri said.
“For us it is very useful, for Higuain, he will be able to score a lot of goals, but also it will be good for Eden.”
Hazard’s controversial penalty doubled Chelsea’s lead before half-time after referee Paul Tierney ruled Cesar Azpilicueta was fouled inside the area, when the offence actually took place just outside.
That welcome piece of good fortune for Sarri was followed by further goals for Hazard, Higuain and David Luiz after the interval as Chelsea ended a run of two successive league defeats in emphatic fashion.
“We started really very well. In the first 20 to 25 minutes I saw my football. We moved the ball very fast,” Sarri said.
“But we need to understand that we shouldn’t need to lose a game to have motivation.
“We have to improve on this, the consistency, the motivation. We need to improve the mentality.”
After winning for only the second time in their last five league matches, Chelsea climb back into fourth place three points above Arsenal, who face Manchester City on Sunday, as they battle to qualify for the Champions League.
While Chelsea’s winter of discontent won’t seem so bleak for Sarri now, the Blues remain at a crossroads.
Much sterner tests await than Huddersfield, who are rooted to the bottom of the table and look destined for relegation after an 11th defeat in their last 12 league games.
Chelsea face a season-defining period that includes the League Cup final against Manchester City and meetings with Manchester United in the FA Cup and City and Tottenham in the league.
“It will be very difficult, but also for our opponents I think,” Sarri said.
“We have to fight to stay in the top four, and then we have to try to win something.”
For ‘Sarri-ball’ to succeed, he needs Higuain to hit the ground running.
– Finished with a flourish –
The Argentine had been off the pace in his first two Chelsea appearances, but he brings a more authoritative presence than the unlamented Alvaro Morata.
Chelsea had failed to score in three of their last four league games, but Higuain ended that barren streak in the 16th minute.
When N’Golo Kante slipped a neat reverse pass towards Higuain, the 31-year-old timed his run perfectly to beat the offside trap, held off his marker and smashed a fierce first-time finish into the roof of the net.
With Huddersfield offering so little threat, Azpilicueta was free to roam forward and the Chelsea defender’s run was ended by a crude shove from Elias Kachunga that yielded the controversial penalty.
Hazard ignored Huddersfield’s protests as he calmly sent Jonas Lossl the wrong way from the spot.
That was Hazard’s 16th goal of the season. The 17th arrived in the 66th minute.
Ross Barkley’s fine pass put Hazard through and he produced a deft first touch to round Lossl before finishing from a tight angle.
Chelsea had their swagger back now and Higuain unfurled a majestic 20-yard strike that whistled into the top corner in the 66th minute.
Luiz’s 86th minute header deflected in off Kachunga to seal the rout.