The good news is Chelsea’s January signing of Gonzalo Higuain means there will be at least one player in his preferred position as the Pensioners go forward trying to secure a top-four finish.
The bad news is he will not be available at Stamford Bridge on Thursday when Chelsea look to overturn a one-goal deficit to Tottenham Hotspur in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal tie and London derby.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
After negotiations picked up late last week, Chelsea and the Argentina international have reached agreement on terms that will bring him to London. While the deadline to register Higuain for this match has passed, there is the possibility he will make his Blues debut at home Sunday in their fourth-round FA Cup tie versus Sheffield Wednesday.
‘Higuain is a few hours away from signing his contract at Chelsea,’ Sarri said at his Wednesday press conference. ‘We are hoping he will start scoring straightaway for us but there is more to his game than goals.
“He is a very strong striker and was especially strong during my first season in Naples, he did very well and scored 36 goals in 35 games in Serie A, and 39 in total. For sure he is one of the best strikers in my career, he has the right experience to play here.”
With the Higuain situation settled, he moves into the centre-forward slot expected to be vacated by Alvaro Morata, who is reportedly close to a move to Atletico Madrid. The Spaniard never truly fit in at Stamford Bridge in his season-plus at Chelsea, totaling 24 goals in 72 matches in all competitions — a poor haul in comparison to his 20 in 43 with Real Madrid in 2016-17 before joining the London club.
The Higuain signing also created a needed distraction for Chelsea after Sarri hit out at his players following last weekend’s 2-0 loss at Arsenal which created a three-team free-for-all among the two London sides and resurgent Manchester United for the fourth and final Champions League spot.
The three clubs are separated by three points, but what caught everyone’s attention was a broadside by the Italian manager — the second one this season — in which he upbraided his players in stunning fashion.
“I’m really angry about the approach that we adopted today. It’s an approach we can’t really accept,” said Sarri afterwards, opting to speak in his native Italian to make sure he was clearly understood. “I have to say, I’m extremely angry. Very angry indeed.
“This defeat was due to our mentality, more than anything else. This is something I can’t accept. This group of players are extremely difficult to motivate.”
It was the second time Sarri unloaded both barrels in a press conference, though he did not single anyone out unlike his withering criticisms of N’Golo Kante in late November following Chelsea’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham. On Wednesday, Sarri walked back some of his sharp words with an eye on getting the needed result here, only to open a new can of worms regarding the leadership abilities of his best player — Eden Hazard.
“I don’t know,” Sarri bluntly responded when asked if the Belgium international is a team leader. “At this moment he is more an individual player than a leader. He’s very important of course as he’s a great player and he can always win the match in two minutes, sometimes in one minute, but at the moment he’s not a leader. He’s a great player, one of the best in the world.
“You know Eden at the moment is a wonderful player but he’s an individual player, he’s very instinctive. For him its very difficult to play only in one position, he likes very much to go in relation to the ball, he wants the ball at his feet so for him I think it’s very difficult to play as a striker but also as a winger. We have to organise the other 10 players in the defensive phase because he needs to play everywhere on the pitch.”
Hazard — like Kante, but to a lesser degree — has been playing out of position as a false nine because Sarri has preferred Hazard in the centre-forward spot of his attacking 4-3-3 over both Morata and Olivier Giroud.
Hazard has factored in 10 of Chelsea’s 15 goals in the last 12 matches he has played in all competitions, and with the rumours of him going to Real Madrid after the season refusing to die down, Sarri’s timing of publicly calling out his star offensive player comes across as aesthetically poor.
Chelsea are expected to field a full-strength XI in their bid to overturn the narrow deficit, with the debating point between opting to start Giroud and moving Hazard out to his preferred spot on the left, or Sarri keeping his powder dry with the France international on the best and sticking with Hazard as a false nine.
Full strength is a relative term for Tottenham Hotspur entering this match as they try to protect their slim advantage. Their top three attackers from the first leg — Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli — are all absentees for the return encounter.
Kane picked up an ankle injury in their 1-0 loss to Manchester United that will sideline him until late Match. Son departed for the United Arab Emirates after the defeat to join South Korea in the Asian Cup. Alli was the latest addition to the walking wounded, suffering a hamstring in the waning minutes of the win over Fulham. Like Kane, his expected return date is late March.
Spurs, though, perservered at Craven Cottage last weekend and emerged with a 2-1 derby win at Fulham courtesy Harry Winks’ dramatic stoppage-time header on a cross from Alli’s injury replacement Kevin Ndoukou. Alli had started the fight back with a goal six minutes after the break, erasing an own goal from Fernando Llorente.
“It was the last couple of seconds of the game and I just thought I’d make a run in there, gamble and see if it would fall to me,” Winks told Spurs’ official website. ““It just shows the belief in the team. We keep going to the final whistle. We have a lot of attacking players out injured and the most important thing is that everyone believes and someone has that opportunity to go and score.”
The belief that everyone has an opportunity to score is an important one considering Spurs have been held off the scoreboard just twice in all competitions this term. For manager Mauricio Pochettino, it also means having depth behind Llorente up front, with Lucas Moura expected to be available after returning to practice this week.
Moura, whose eight goals in all competitions are third on the team and the most of any available player on the Lilywhites, had been sidelined since suffering a knee injury in the FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers on Jan. 4. Holding midfielder Moussa Sissoko is also available for selection, having recovered from a groin injury suffered in the loss to United.
The spate of injuries has again prompted cries among Spurs supporters to find reinforcements before the January window closes, but Pochettino appears content with who he has on hand while noting the club is exploring options.
“It is so clear, I am so open to improve the squad and add a player if Harry Kane and Dele Alli are fit or not fit,” he said. “I was open in the summer and I am open now.
“The difficult thing is to find quality that will add to the squad. We are not going to change strategy, we are working, we will see what happens at the end.”
Tottenham have to been to the League Cup final since 2015, when it lost to Chelsea. That was also the last time the Pensioners — the current FA Cup holders — last reached the League Cup final. The winner of this match is all but certain to play Manchester City, who entered their second-leg tie versus Burton Albion ahead 9-0.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are 8/13 favourites to at least win the match and overturn the one-goal deficit they face, while the depleted Spurs are 5/1 underdogs to sweep the two legs to advance to the Carabao Cup final. The odds of a draw that would allow Tottenham to progress is pegged at 16/5.
Spurs are still the overall favourites to advance with 3/4 odds compared to even money for the Pensioners.
Oddsmakers do not have a lean for the total goals, with 9/10 odds being offered for both over and under 2.5 goals. The same is true for potential clean sheets as 10/11 odds are being offered for both teams scoring and at least one team posting a shutout.
Hazard leads the line for first goal-scoring options at 10/3, with Giroud a close second at 4/1 and Hudson-Odoi rounding out the podium places at 11/2. Chelsea wingers Willian (6/1) and Pedro (7/1) complete the top five, with Blues striker Victor Moses (17/2) also emerging as an option before top Tottenham option Llorente (9/1) and Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley.
Hazard is the only player on either side at even money, with Giroud (5/4) and Hudson-Odoi (7/4) following. Willian is the only other player at better than 2/1 odds at 15/8, with Pedro again close behind him at 9/4. Moses is an 11/4 option while Llorente and Barkley are 3/1 choices. Lucas Moura is a 10/3 pick for Spurs while Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela are both 4/1 choices.
Apparently the West End is not the only place to find drama in London. There is always a calculated gamble to put players on blast publicly like Sarri did over the weekend, though at least this time he called out his entire team as opposed to singling out Kante.
But any good it may have done in the training at Cobham the last two days may have been completely undone with his pointed non-endorsement of Hazard as a leader. Chelsea do not lack for locker room leadership — to wit, Cesar Azpilicueta is the club talisman and there is a World Cup winner and level-headed veteran in Giroud as well.
But with Hazard’s future at Chelsea clearly uncertain, Sarri’s critiques — more so because he has been using the Belgium international out of position as a false nine as his predominant spot more recently — have done well to create angst and hand-wringing among the club supporters.
As for the short-term of this match… maybe it lights a fire under Chelsea, who have been blanked in three of their last five matches in all competitions. Despite losing the first leg — on a hotly contested penalty via VAR — the Pensioners carried much of the play in the second 45 minutes at Wembley and were somewhat hard-luck losers in not finding an equaliser.
Pochettino has an interesting dilemma in his hands with the word Moura will be available. Llorente did not cover himself in glory at Craven Cottage — in addition to his own goal, he missed an open header that could have given Spurs the led much earlier before Winks rescued all three points.
It may be a case similar to Sarri in which the Argentine keeps his power dry with Moura to see what he needs to do in the final half-hour to see out the match whether Spurs are ahead, behind or level on aggregate.
Though offence is a good defence, the Lilywhites do not lack in the latter. Take away their 3-1 loss to Wolverhampton, and Tottenham have conceded just two goals in their other six most recent matches in all competitions. It would not be surprising to see Llorente operate as a lone striker well up the line to allow space for Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela to operate in the middle to prevent Chelsea from monopolizing possession like they did in the second half at Wembley.
The other unspoken theme of this match is the pressure Spurs are on to get their hands on any sort of silverware for the first time since winning the 2008 League Cup. There may be some resignation to the Pensioners perhaps overturning this deficit given Tottenham are bereft of their top attacking options, but such a loss would still sting and add fresh fodder to Pochettino’s whereabouts come summer.
Sarri, though, is equally desirous of winning any trophy after failing to do so throughout his travails in Italy. Overturning this deficit and getting to the final would be — perhaps internally for him — vindication of his methods and personnel deployment as he readies for the two-track fight of Europa League knockout play and fending off Arsenal and Manchester United for fourth.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Chelsea wins 3-2 on aggregate)