Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri made goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga “pay” for his “big mistake” by dropping him before the team cast aside an air of crisis with a thoroughly deserved win over Tottenham.
Sarri left Kepa on the bench following the Spaniard’s refusal to be substituted in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final defeat by Manchester City, re-asserting his authority and ensuring speculation about his future will be lifted, for now at least, after this excellent performance and victory.
“It was very easy. Kepa made a big mistake and then paid with the club. In this match he has to pay with the team,” Sarri said.
“It was only a message for all the team, the dressing room – we are a team and not 25 individuals. Now it is behind us and Kepa from tomorrow will be with us.”
Tottenham’s title hopes, already dented by defeat at Burnley on Saturday, are now surely over after this loss at Stamford Bridge and they must focus on what is an increasingly competitive fight for a top-four place.
Gonzalo Higuain hit the woodwork for Chelsea and Harry Winks had similar misfortune in the first half but Sarri’s side saw their endeavour rewarded when Pedro’s wriggling run ended with a shot between Hugo Lloris’ legs at his near post after 57 minutes.
Harry Kane wasted a good chance to level for Spurs but this damaging loss was sealed in calamitous fashion when Kieran Trippier turned Olivier Giroud’s flick past Lloris into his own net with six minutes left.
This was a vital night for Sarri after Kepa’s insubordination so this was a victory of huge significance for the Italian on a night when the keeper’s replacement Willy Caballero was barely troubled.
It is not over-stating the case to suggest Maurizio Sarri’s job was on the line here against Spurs.
Sarri was already under pressure after Chelsea’s fans turned on him during the FA Cup fourth-round loss at home to Manchester United earlier this month and so much good work was totally overshadowed by Kepa’s Wembley rebellion that led to the keeper being fined then dropped.
The Italian could not afford any more chaos or defeats and Chelsea delivered for their manager with a fine performance that at least releases the pressure valve slightly and suggests he can still coax performances out of his squad.
Chelsea survived a spell of Spurs pressure just before the interval to fully merit the three points that keeps them in the hunt for the top four.
Sarri even found variety in his substitutions, with the trademark exchange of Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic – which brought ironic cheers and laughter from Chelsea fans during the Manchester United loss – replaced by more imaginative alterations.
Here, Kovacic was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek while Willian came on for Eden Hazard.
After taking the big decision to bench his errant keeper, Sarri needed a good performance, three points and a show of solidarity from his Chelsea players.
He got all three on a very satisfactory night. “It was really very important tonight because we’re fighting for the top four,” said Sarri.
“I don’t know but I think maybe with this result we could involve Tottenham in this fight. The gap is very large, seven points, but we have one match [in hand].”
“In this job you are under pressure every week, if you’re lucky every six months. It’s normal. If you lose two matches, three matches in a row you’re under pressure. I think it’s normal for every coach, maybe something more in Chelsea.”
Spurs needed to respond after the loss at Burnley on Saturday but this was a tired, uninspired performance that surely ends their Premier League title ambitions.
Chelsea had control for most of the match apart from a phase just before the break. Spurs could not maintain momentum after the break and when they had to find a spark after going behind they fell short.
Spurs are nine points behind leaders Liverpool so reality dictates they are now left with a fight for a place in the top four.
Harry Kane failed to fire, missing an opening he would normally snap up, and the closest they came was when Winks rattled the bar.
Trippier’s late own goal summed up the night – sloppy, careless, damaging.
Spurs now face a north London derby of increased importance against Arsenal at Wembley on Saturday after the Gunners’ 5-1 thrashing of Bournemouth left them only four points behind in fourth. And Manchester United are closing in five points behind in fifth after their win at Crystal Palace.
“In the small details we lose. We made mistakes and lost the game, that is why we are disappointed, we weren’t capable of playing our way,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said.
“The competition will put us in our place. It’s a 10-month competition, not just three or four months. After Burnley I said it was difficult, and tonight makes it impossible to fight Man City and Liverpool. Only they can win the league – we must fight to win games and to be fair.”