Sarri buys time with unexpected top-four finish

London (AFP) –


After a turbulent first season at Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri goes into Thursday's Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt savouring some much-needed breathing space.

Sarri has spent most of the campaign engaged in a struggle to win over his sceptical players and fans.

At one stage, it appeared the Chelsea manager was fighting a losing battle as a miserable run of results sparked reports he was on the verge of the sack.

Amid reports that Chelsea's stars were sick of Sarri's inflexible game-plan, monotonous training sessions and habit of criticising them through the media, the nadir came in February when Blues goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted during the League Cup final defeat against Manchester City.

Sarri has side-stepped one crisis after another just deftly enough that he has emerged from a bleak winter with his prospects of avoiding the axe looking brighter after Chelsea secured a top four finish in the Premier League last weekend.

With a place in next season's Champions League sealed with a game to spare, Chelsea can turn their attention to winning the first trophy of Sarri's reign.

A 1-1 draw in the semi-final first leg away to Eintracht has put Chelsea in a good position for the return leg at Stamford Bridge.

Winning the final, against Arsenal or Valencia in Baku, would strengthen the Italian's hopes of convincing the Chelsea hierarchy he deserves more time to impose his philosophy on a squad that has so far been unable, or unwilling, to adapt to 'Sarri-ball'.

There remain doubts in some quarters about Sarri's ability to make his tactics work in the Premier League after the former Napoli manager's troubled year.

Chelsea supporters are still under-whelmed by Sarri, despite their team's qualification for the Champions League, which is worth at least an estimated £35 million.

At half time of Sunday's game against Watford they responded to a turgid display with jeers -- the discordant soundtrack to Sarri's woes.

- Peace-maker Kante -

Chelsea roused themselves to secure a 3-0 win that proved enough to seal their top four berth after surprise draws for Arsenal and Manchester United.

Despite winning only once in four league games, Chelsea stumbled over the finish line in fittingly chaotic fashion. Even Sarri conceded they were "lucky" to beat Watford after such a disjointed opening.

It has often been that way for the 60-year-old this term.

The biggest issue with Sarri's system has been his conviction that his handpicked pre-season signing Jorginho must play as the lynchpin in front of his defence.

Jorginho's tepid displays would have been bad enough without the perception that Sarri was playing favourites with his former Napoli player.

Sarri moved N'Golo Kante from the defensive midfield role to make room for Jorginho. Chelsea appeared far more fragile as a result.

At club where grievances are aired, including Gary Cahill's accusation that Sarri doesn't treat his players with respect, it would have been no surprise if Kante had seized the opportunity to voice his disdain for the coach after picking up a hamstring injury against Watford.

Sarri admitted he shouldn't have risked Kante because he knew the France midfielder was tired and in danger of being injured.

Yet Kante was happy to play peace maker.

"I had no problem before the game, I was fine and it (the injury) just happened," Kante said.

"We are doing better, I think we understand the idea of the manager."

Aware of what silverware would mean to Sarri's job security, Kante added: "Many times in the season we have been winning and losing, winning and losing, so we have to see if we can get what we want on Thursday and go to the final."