Olivier Giroud is the Europa League’s top scorer with nine goals, but has made just six Premier League starts all season. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

LONDON – Chelsea’s latest Premier League away-day collapse at Everton leaves Maurizio Sarri’s side facing an uphill task to finish in the top four and secure much-needed Champions League qualification.

Languishing in sixth, the Blues trail fourth-placed Arsenal by just three points, but face a much tougher run-in than the Gunners in the remaining eight games of the Premier League season.

A run of four defeats in their past five league games away from Stamford Bridge also gives little reason for hope ahead of upcoming visits to title-chasing Liverpool and Manchester United, who also lead Chelsea by a point in fifth.

A kind Europa League draw, with Slavia Prague to come in the quarter-finals – before a potential last-four clash with Eintracht Frankfurt or Benfica – may now provide the easiest route to next season’s Champions League, with a place in the group stage on offer for the winners of that competition.

But to emerge victorious in Baku on May 29 or stand a chance of a top-four revival, Sarri must iron out a number of repeated failings from his first season in charge.

Sarri was given the striker he desired in January with the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain.

However, the Argentine has scored just three times in 10 appearances, against lowly opposition in Huddersfield and Fulham, with even Sarri admitting Higuain has to do more.

“He needs to improve his physical condition and mental condition,” said Sarri after defeat at Goodison Park.

But the pressure is on for him to finally relent and hand Olivier Giroud league starts.

The French World Cup winner is the Europa League’s top scorer with nine goals, but has made just six Premier League starts all season with Eden Hazard, the departed Alvaro Morata and Higuain all handed more time as the focal point to Chelsea’s attack.

Chelsea’s striker struggles have been exacerbated by a lack of goals and creativity from midfield.

Sarri’s side have now failed to score in eight of 30 Premier League games. 

One of Sarri’s most analysed moves has been to deploy N’Golo Kante in a more advanced role to make room for Jorginho – who followed Sarri from Napoli to west London last summer – at the base of the midfield.

No player in the Premier League has made more passes than the Italian international’s 2 554 this season, yet not a single one has provided an assist.

Kante has three league goals, but often fails to provide the finish in his unfamiliar role despite getting into good positions and on-loan Real Madrid midfield Mateo Kovacic has yet to score for the club.

Even Ross Barkley, who started the season brightly, has not scored a league goal since October.

Given that lack of goals, one of the growing frustrations for the Chelsea faithful is Sarri’s resistance to handing the home-grown talent of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi more Premier League minutes.

A loan spell at Crystal Palace last season gave Loftus-Cheek, the playing time he needed to break into England’s World Cup squad.

But he has started just once in the league all season despite being Chelsea’s top-scoring central midfielder with six goals in all competitions.

The same goes for 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi, for whom Chelsea rejected a reported £35 million (about R668 million) bid from Bayern Munich in January.

Hudson-Odoi has scored four times in eight Europa League appearances, but has yet to start a Premier League game, with the more experienced Pedro Rodriguez and Willian trusted by Sarri.

A lack of game time is one of the reasons Hudson-Odoi was keen to leave in January, and he has so far refused to extend his contract beyond 2020.

Sarri’s current stance has done little to change his mind.

AFP