Kieran Trippier didn’t look up, he heard only the footsteps on the back of his neck, not the shouts of his goalkeeper charging towards him. With a sweep of the inside of his right foot, Hugo Lloris was left stranded and Chelsea’s cathartic and, at its end, comical 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge was confirmed.
Sarri revealed he’d spoken to Chelsea’s hierarchy, not once or twice, but three times since the Spanish goalkeeper’s bout of backstabbing, and it’s easy to see quite how misfortune could have been favoured.
Harry Winks’ long-range effort clanged off the bar, Harry Kane’s usually gilt-edged eye for goal wavered, and in the end Willy Caballero’s most testing moment came in being unwittingly bludgeoned in the face by a close-range shot.
But this was not a night about Mauricio Pochettino’s might have beens, as another Premier League campaign was consigned to cinder. This was about Sarri’s redemption at his rival’s peril, rising from the greatest gauntlet of his tumultuous Chelsea reign thus far to extend his flickering lifespan.
The question over Sarri’s side was not of their performance at Wembley, having held the champions to a goalless draw, but of his fragile rule over the dressing room; whether the blue cabal were once again revolting.
But here, at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s squad united with trenchant grit. When Eden Hazard was brought off with half-an-hour to play, there was no rancour from the crowd or from the Belgian.
Pedro, the unassuming standout on the opposite wing, had not only broken the deadlock 12 minutes into the second half, but proceeded to sprint back the length of the entire pitch to strip Christian Eriksen of possession with a ferocious slide tackle on the edge of his box just seconds later.
It was the veteran Spaniard who typified a performance which showed loyalty to the manager that many questioned any longer existed. “In this job, you are under pressure every week,” Sarri said after the match.
“If you’re lucky, every six months. It’s normal if you lose two or three matches in a row that you’ll be under pressure, but that’s the same for every coach… Maybe more pressure at Chelsea.”
There was also a delightful streak of nastiness to Chelsea’s performance. When Harry Kane harangued David Luiz midway through the first half, in what was supposed to be a gracious return of the ball after Chelsea had amicably stopped play to allow Kieran Tripper to receive treatment, Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta howled in the face of the England’s captain.
But, perhaps, most telling of Chelsea’s response was the lack of reprieve for Kepa. The decision to drop the goalkeeper was one Sarri claimed was not an apology to him, but to his teammates. “Kepa made a big mistake,” Sarri reiterated. “He paid with the club, then he had to pay with the team… Now, for me, the issue is closed.”
Caballero, like an old sage, remained supportive of his superior when speaking after the game. And, as unlikely as it seems, an incident which so easily fractured the dressing room and looked a catalyst for combustion, has become the sticky glue Sarri has used to meld his side together again.
Of course, the jubilation will only last until next weekend’s game. Anything but a win at Fulham on Sunday will bring a swift return to caricatured Benson & Hedges smuggling mediocrity.
But for now he can savour in his players having stood up for him. It’s not quite an air of light positivity, because at Chelsea the sharks are never too far away, but there was at least a sense of reclamation for the Blues' tortured genius. The hope that this could be a turning point and he may be able to steer a sinking ship to shore rather than crash into a cliff face.
The Champions League spot is still theirs to lose, the Europa League is still there to be won, and the biggest hurdle of his reign has been navigated.
“The most important thing is that we need consistency in performances and in results,” Sarri continued. “As you know very well, in this championship, it’s so difficult…But now we need points.”
Not too far in the distance, the next crucible awaits.
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