LONDON – Chelsea put a smile back on Maurizio Sarri’s face with a crucial 2-0 win over Tottenham that secured a stay of execution for their troubled manager, after Kepa Arrizabalaga was dropped following his Wembley mutiny.
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.
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.
There was a mixture of boos and cheers for Kepa’s name from Chelsea fans when the squad was read out over the tannoy before kickoff.
But, while it remains to be seen if his exile is more than a one-match slap on the wrist from Sarri, it would be no surprise if he sticks with Caballero against Fulham on Sunday.
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.
Higuain squandered another chance to put Chelsea ahead when Lloris’ suicidal pass from his own goal-line was intercepted by Pedro on the edge of the Tottenham area.
Pedro and Eden Hazard combined to set up Higuain, but the Argentine’s curler drifted wide, to leave Sarri holding his head in frustration.
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’ legs at his near post.
Often criticised for is predictable substitutions, Sarri sprang a surprise when he took off Hazard immediately after Pedro’s goal.
But 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.AFP