LONDON – Maurizio Sarri believes Chelsea’s crucial 2-0 win over Tottenham can save their season after his decision to drop Wembley rebel Kepa Arrizabalaga paid off on Wednesday.
Pedro’s second-half strike and a farcical own goal from Kieran Trippier were a much-needed boost for Sarri as the Chelsea manager fights to avoid the sack following a turbulent first season in charge.
Sarri’s standing had been severely undermined by Kepa after the rebellious keeper sparked an astonishing meltdown from the Italian when he refused to be substituted during Sunday’s League Cup final.
Sarri was furious when Kepa ignored his decision to take him off after he required treatment for cramp in the closing stages of their penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester City.
Kepa apologised for his behaviour, but the 24-year-old was punished with a fine of one week’s wages before Sarri attempted to regain control of his squad by selecting Argentine veteran Willy Caballero in his place at Stamford Bridge.
Caballero kept a confident clean-sheet, while Kepa languished on the bench and Chelsea produced a committed display that suggested Sarri’s players still back their beleaguered boss.
With Arsenal and Manchester United both winning on Wednesday, Chelsea remain in sixth place – three points outside the top four – but there is now a little hope for Sarri after a difficult period.
Asked if the result could be a springboard for a positive end to the season, Sarri said: “We hope so. Most important, we need the consistency of performances and results.
“It was really very important, because we are fighting for the top four.”
Sarri revealed Kepa would still be his first-choice goalkeeper going forward, and he insisted he was never concerned about the mounting sense of crisis around his club.
“The problem wasn’t so big as you write. In this job, you are under pressure every day, or if you are lucky every six weeks,” he said.
“Kepa made a big mistake and then paid with the club. In this match, he has to pay for the team. It was only a message for all the team.
“Now we stop the question, it is behind us, and in the future, Kepa will be with us.”
Successive defeats at Burnley and now against their bitter London rivals have left third placed Tottenham’s title bid in tatters. They have lost four consecutive away matches in all competitions for the first time in 10 years, and lie nine points adrift of leaders Liverpool.
“When the performance is not good enough, it’s because of us. We didn’t compete at our best,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said.
“Two defeats in a few days is disappointing. It is impossible to fight Man City and Liverpool now. But it’s a moment to be calm. I’m not going to change my assessment of the players.”
Right from the start, Chelsea seemed to thrive on the siege mentality.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s high cross was met with a weak header by Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko and Gonzalo Higuain sliced his half-volley against a post with keeper Hugo Lloris rooted to the spot.
Harry Winks went close to breaking the deadlock just before halftime, as the Tottenham midfielder’s long-range effort dipped over Caballero and hit the bar.
Chelsea were back on top in the second half, and their pressure reaped a rich reward in the 57th minute.
Azpilicueta slipped a pass to Pedro down the right side of the Tottenham area, and the Spanish winger cut inside the lumbering Toby Alderweireld before firing a low shot that flashed through Lloris’s legs at his near post.
Pedro preserved Chelsea’s lead with a superbly-timed tackle to stop Eriksen in his tracks as the Tottenham midfielder prepared to shoot.
Sarri’s luck was finally turning for the better and he was able to celebrate a vital victory thanks to Trippier’s blunder in the 84th minute.
When Olivier Giroud flicked the ball towards him, Trippier bizarrely left it until Lloris had come his line, then attempted a back-pass that raced past his keeper and into the empty net.