Chelsea’s match against Brighton may have seemed like something of a sideshow compared to the festival going on up the road at Tottenham’s new ground, but their 3-0 victory could prove to be just as important in the race for the top four and for the future of their manager Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri has endured a tempestuous relationship with Chelsea fans recently, not least last weekend when they called for him to be sacked during a match at Cardiff in which his side went 1-0 down before scraping a fortunate 2-1 victory.
The biggest beef for supporters that day was the coach’s controversial decision to rest Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante and to once again leave rising superstar Callum Hudson-Odoi on the bench.
This victory, however, highlighted that the Italian may not be as stubborn as it seems. You would hardly say it was a vintage performance, Brighton’s defensive approach made it impossible to produce one of those, but it was nevertheless memorable for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, Sarri recalled both Hazard and Kante, with the former scoring a wonderful goal in the second half. Secondly he bowed to pressure and selected Hudson-Odoi for his first Premier League start — and the England winger responded by setting up Olivier Giroud’s opener.
And thirdly he continued with another homegrown favourite, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who provided a sumptuous goal to wrap up a very comfortable victory.
Will it be enough to save Sarri’s job and keep the Matthew Harding Stand off his back? Maybe it’s too early to say — but it will certainly help. Significantly, this result moves Chelsea level on points with fourth-placed Arsenal and only one point behind third-placed Tottenham; and, of course, making that top four is something which any Stamford Bridge manager needs to achieve to have any chance of keeping his job.
Given that Chelsea’s next two away games in the Premier League, with only six games remaining, are at Anfield and Old Trafford, it was absolutely vital they put building blocks in place for those tougher tests ahead.
With that in mind, it seemed a little strange that the press box in west London was so empty, with many journalists joining the jamboree in North London instead; and even London’s evening newspaper, the Evening Standard, featured only a few paragraphs on Chelsea in contrast to endless pages of Tottenham’s new stadium.
In truth, Blues fans were strangely quiet, too, after what has been at best a frustrating season and at worst a hugely disappointing one.
Victory at Cardiff last weekend was welcome, especially as Sarri’s side went 1-0 down before ending the game 2-1 up, but it hardly masked the underlying issues at a club that is decidedly unsettled.
At least Chelsea had a goal to celebrate just before half-time, however, having made rather hard work of it up to that point. They had fan-favourite Hudson-Odoi to thank for it, too — the Englishman cleverly beating his marker before delivering a low cross which Olivier Giroud, chosen ahead of Gonzalo Higuain, cleverly converted at the near post.
A wonderful goal from Hazard on the hour mark then woke everyone up as he turned on the edge of the area and curled home superbly past Mat Ryan and into the top right-hand corner.
It highlighted what we already new — that Chelsea may rely heavily on their Belgian superstar but, despite the doomsayers, they will always be a contender while he is on the pitch and cannot be ruled out of the race for the top four just yet.
Loftus-Cheek, another player Chelsea fans have desperately been calling for, gave a hint that Hazard is not alone in terms of pure talent; his goal to make it 3-0 was even more spectacular, curling home with even greater power from even greater distance.
As for sorry Brighton, it rather summed up their approach that their away fans gleefully chanted ‘We’ve had a shot, we’ve had a shot’ after 80 minutes of a highly defensive performance.
It can’t be easy pumping yourself up for a trip to a ground where you are expected to lose, just days before playing in the club’s first FA Cup semi-final for 36 years. But even with Manchester and Wembley in their wing mirror, it was a tepid display — marred even further by an injury to winger Solly March which may well keep him out of Saturday’s tie.
Brighton can console themselves that Cardiff’s defeat at City, while they were busy losing in London, will probably go a long way to ensuring they stay up despite this performance.
Chelsea, meanwhile, who face West Ham next on Monday, will see it as a positive night that might not have been as newsworthy as Tottenham’s White Hart Lane party but was, nevertheless, a significant result which keeps them firmly in the race for the Champions League.
Arrizabalaga; Emerson, Luiz, Christensen, Azpilicueta (Zappacosta 73); Loftus-Cheek (Kovacic 82), Jorginho, Kante; Hazard (Willian 84), Giroud, Hudson-Odoi. Subs not used: Caballero, Rudiger, Barkley, Higuain.
Ryan: Bong, Dunk, Duffy, Bruno; Bissouma, Stephens, Propper; Jahanbakhsh (Burn 75), Andone (Murray 70), March (Knockaert 31). Subs not used: Button, Kayal, Izquierdo, Bernardo.