Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Chelsea jury still out over 'Sarriball' despite Europa League title within grasp

Italian has endured a mixed debut season in England, which could still end with a major piece of silverware

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri speaks to the media ahead of the Europa League semi-final, second leg. EPA
Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri speaks to the media ahead of the Europa League semi-final, second leg. EPA

Stamford Bridge says its farewell to the season on Thursday evening, and if the warm-ups for this last home fixture, the second leg of the Europa League semi-final, are to be heeded, we should expect applause to be delivered conditionally.

At the weekend, there were boos at half time, and then a begrudging buoyancy in the grandstands after the 3-0 win over Watford delivered an unexpectedly early confirmation that Uefa Champions League football would return to Chelsea in September via a top-four finish.

Anfield it was certainly not, but then, even for loyalists used to the habitual upheaval of managers, the undulating highs and lows of modern Chelsea, this has been a confusing nine months.

It began with a new manager, Maurizio Sarri, whose start was delayed by the prolonged settlement of terms for his predecessor Antonio Conte’s departure, and with a promise of a defined, unique style of football. Quite what that looks like is still an enigma.

What Chelsea have gathered is that Sarri has dogmas. What they always knew is that he has no significant trophies to his name. Here in mid-May, there are many yet to be persuaded his dogmas are the right ones but see a growing possibility that at the end of his first Chelsea season Sarri, like Conte, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Matteo and Rafa Benitez before him might be collecting a major prize.

The Europa League, in which Chelsea start Wednesday night’s semi-final with a light advantage thanks to their away goal in the first leg of the 1-1 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt, would be Sarri’s finest decoration in a career that previously flourished at an entertaining but silverware-free Napoli.

How far his Chelsea have entertained is another question. This is not a vintage Blues to compare to the Premier League champions of Mourinho’s version of 14 years ago, or Ancelotti’s high-scoring edition, or even the Chelsea Conte turned so compelling in 2016-17.

The boos and then the tepid applause within an hour on Sunday told the story of a whole campaign. ‘Sarriball’ as the manager’s idiosyncratic style was dubbed even before he arrived, has been seen in glimpses, barely more.

Additionally, the irregular impact that the two players most closely associated with Sarri’s Napoli, Jorginho and Gonzalo Higuain, have had on Chelsea since the club answered his petitions to sign them are no great endorsement of his capacity to graft his ideas onto this, his first managerial job outside Italy.

Chelsea have finished in the top quartet of the Premier League thanks in greater part to 'Edenball', a sport in which an uncommonly skilful Belgian bounces off a series of crude tackles, keeps possession, makes space for colleagues, and sees and executes exceptional passes and goals.

Eden Hazard has been doing that in Blue for the best part of seven years, under seven different managers. He may very well be taking part in his last home match for Chelsea on Wednesday evening. The long desire of the player to include a chapter of his career in Spain is looked on very favourably at Real Madrid.

The elegies for Eden would be sweetened if he signs off the season with a winner’s medal. “We think we we deserve a trophy this season,” said Sarri, whose high point so far was the League Cup final, lost on penalties to Manchester City.

The manager is equally conscious a post-Hazard future looks … well, hazardous. Chelsea are facing a possible transfer embargo after Fifa found the club had breached guidelines on the recruitment of young players, and pending appeal, that will be restrictive.

Sarri, to his credit, has softened the potential impact a little. The club’s notoriety for closing off first-team opportunity for graduates of their accomplished academy is less pronounced than it was.

Sarri’s Europa League adventure has been shared with the maturing homegrown talents Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 23 and scorer of a group-phase hat-trick, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, 18 and contributor of three goals in the knockout phase until ligament damage ended his season.

Their form meant Sarri could use Hazard sparingly in Europe, concentrating his best footballer on the chase for Premier League status.

The minimum target in the league now achieved, thanks to Hazard’s 14th and 15th assists of the season against Watford - he has scored 16 goals, too - the Belgian can continue the work he started in the last half hour of the first leg of the semi-final, tiring out a wearying Eintracht defence.

If anything looks like an invitation for a Sarriball steamroller at the Bridge, that should be it.

Updated: May 9, 2019 02:26 PM

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