If this is how Maurizio Sarri is going to respond after a loss, things just got much more interesting at Stamford Bridge with Chelsea.
Still agitated after suffering their first loss in embarrassing fashion, Sarri and Chelsea look to regain some pride and momentum for this weekend’s Premier League play as they host Greek side PAOK in an Europa League Group L match Thursday in London.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
After piling up 14 victories going 18 matches unbeaten in all competitions, Chelsea finally tasted the bitter pill of defeat Saturday, absorbing a 3-1 reverse to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium. The loss dropped the Blues to fourth in the table, one point better than hard-charging Arsenal and seven points adrift of frontrunners and reigning champions Manchester City.
But the manner of the defeat did not sit well with Sarri. He was tactically outfoxed by Spurs counterpart Mauricio Pochettino, whose decision to play a midfield diamond exposed Jorginho’s lack of pace in his deep-lying midfield role in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation. That lack of pace was exacerbated when N’Golo Kante went forward and left patches of open areas where Spurs raced through — Tottenham were two goals to the good after 16 minutes.
The match was done and dusted when Heung-Min Son bamboozled Jorginho on the flank and raced by him and around him before slotting past Kepa Arrizabalaga nine minutes after the re-start. Olivier Giroud grabbed a late consolation with his first Premier League goal, but Sarri was blunt and withering in his critique of Kante at Thursday’s pre-match news conference.
“I want to play a central midfielder who is a very technical player, a Jorginho or Fàbregas,” Sarri said. “I don’t want Kanté in this position. … Kanté, in the last match, wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes but in the wrong way,” Sarri said. “He lost his position. He attacked the other box too much. This is not one of the best characteristics of Kanté.
“Maybe it’s only a question of time,” Sarri added. “But Kanté has to stay near to Jorginho, especially when the ball is on the other side.”
The public rebuke was stunning as Kante’s meteoric rise to stardom as a defensive midfielder was instrumental in Leicester City’s shocking Premier League title in 2016 and again with Chelsea under Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte the following season. The France international was able to operate in a push-pull tandem with Paul Pogba in helping Les Bleus win the World Cup this summer, and after signing a new five-year deal to stay at Stamford Bridge worth a reported £290,000 per week, the timing of Sarri’s criticisms are sub-optimal.
Ever the diplomat, Giroud defended his compatriot, saying, “I think N’Golo can play every single position in midfield. We don’t need to question his position. He just needs to adapt to what the manager wants.”
Sarri said he met with each player individually to figure out what went wrong as he prepares for Chelsea’s next league match Sunday against fellow Italian, former Chelsea and Leicester City boss, and newly minted Fulham gaffer Claudio Ranieri. Sarri is expected to make wholesale changes for the Pensioners for this contest, with a complete swap of the back four and midfield three expected.
Up front, there will be at least one change as Sarri has ruled out Eden Hazard, who suffered an ankle injury versus Spurs. That comes on top of the back injury that knocked the Belgium international for a few matches earlier this term, but what has irked Sarri is the assorted knocks are costing Hazard training time. Victor Moses will also miss this contest, leaving Pedro and Willian as the likely flanks to either Giroud or Alvaro Morata.
The Blues have already clinched a spot in the knockout round thanks to their 100 percent record and need a draw from either this match or their last contest at Vidi to clinch the top spot in the group. They opened Europa League play with a 1-0 victory at PAOK as Willian’s goal in the seventh minute stood as the difference.
The Greek side have won three on the bounce since their 1-0 defeat at Vidi left them third in the group ahead of BATE on goal difference. PAOK posted a 2-0 victory over Xanthi on Saturday as Aleksander Prijovic scored two minutes after the restart and Mauricio added a second on 65 minutes.
PAOK are five points clear atop the Greek Super League through 11 matches despite a two-point deduction stemming from their abandoned match versus AEK last term. They have only shipped four goals in domestic play, but the calibre of competition has flummoxed Razvan Lucescu’s side, which have yielded five goals in their four group contests.
“We are here to win,” Lucescu said at his pre-match press conference. “I hope we took a lesson from the previous game. We have to play perfectly until the final whistle. Every game is different. We have will to fight for a good result. Chelsea is a great team. We have to be focused and concentrated.”
Omar El Kaddouri will miss the final group match if he is booked in this contest.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are firm 1/3 favourites to retain their 100 percent record and post a fifth win in group play. There are 9/2 odds on the sides splitting the points, which would also give Chelsea group honours, and a shock scoreline in PAOK’s favour would offer a 10/1 return.
Despite the 0-1 scoreline in the reverse fixture and in three of their four group fixtures, oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to hit the back of the net on multiple occasions with 8/13 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for fewer.
Morata and Giroud are joint-top options to open the scoring at 9/2, with Willian a 6/1 selection to offer an encore from the reverse fixture. Pedro also has 6/1 odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek checking in at 8/1. Prijovic is PAOK’s top choice on the toteboard for a surprise first goal at 9/1 along with teammate Chuba Akpom.
For any-time goal-scorers, the order remains the same for the aforementioned eight players — Giroud and Morata have 5/4 odds, Pedro and Willian 7/4, Barkley and Loftus-Cheek 12/5 and Prijovic and Akpom 11/4.
At various points in the early part of the season, pundits have taken Sarri to task for what they felt was a sandbagging and playing down of Chelsea’s title hopes as each match passed and they continued to hover around the top of the table with Liverpool and Manchester City. The Pensioners have an intriguing eight days coming up as they travel to Wolverhampton mid-week before their long-awaited showdown with City at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.
Maybe Sarri doth protest too much in some regards, but it was growing more clear with each passing match against quality opposition that pushing Kante forward is not his optimal role. Ranieri knew that at Leicester, Conte knew that before Sarri arrived at Stamford Bridge, and the guy who perfected the role of “water-carrier” as a player with Les Bleus — Didier Deschamps — knew that in Russia this summer.
What made Sarri’s broadside all the more compelling is that Kante is a rather private person — he does not talk much about his game or anything. That Giroud spoke up for him speaks volumes about the respect Kante does have in that dressing room because Giroud has a fair amount of equity himself in doing all the dirty work as the knock-down target forward who makes everyone’s lives easier around the penalty area.
This match is one for Chelsea to exhale and let some of the understudies get a run-out, though the Ross Barkley/Mateo Kovacic tussle at left midfield continues to be one of the more underreported position battles on this team — mainly because it affects how often Kante can push forward on the opposite side.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, PAOK 0.