If drama was a category in the Premier League table, Chelsea would be runaway winners this term.
After an outlandish moment in the Carabao Cup finals in which Kepa Arrizabalaga defied manager Maurizio Sarri and refused to be substituted, the question ahead of Wednesday’s derby at Stamford Bridge against Tottenham Hotspur is whether the world’s most expensive goalkeeper will be between the sticks.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Arrizabalaga had been battling a hamstring problem that made him a question mark for Sunday’s match against Manchester City, and it appeared he had aggravated the injury making a save in the final minutes of extra time and even sought out medical attention. Sarri, with an eye on the impending penalty kicks in the scoreless match, told backup Willy Caballero to get ready to enter the game.
The fourth official held up the board to signal the substitution, only for Arrizabalaga – signed by Chelsea for £72 million before the start of the season – to refuse to come off the pitch. Captain Cesar Azpilicueta did not intervene, and only David Luiz made any movement in his keeper’s direction. After a back-and-forth between Arrizabalaga and the Chelsea bench, the keeper remained in the match and sent Sarri into a furious rage while Caballero stewed in embarrassment.
In the interim between the end of extra time and the penalty kicks, Sarri had to be restrained by defender Antonio Rudiger from confronting Arrizabalaga and had barely any interaction with his side before they lined up for penalties. Arrizabalaga made a valiant effort to redeem himself in the spot kicks, nearly stopping Sergio Aguero’s attempt in the second round and successfully punching away Leroy Sane’s shot in the next round to give Chelsea a lifeline.
Luiz, though, cannoned the next attempt off the woodwork, and that was enough daylight for Manchester City to produce a victory, with Arrizabalaga guessing wrong on Raheem Sterling’s match-winning attempt. With Sarri denied his first trophy at any level as a manager in such dramatic and bewildering fashion, all of the post-match talk centered around whether Sarri has lost the dressing room and if there would be any repercussions for Arrizabalaga going forward.
Both used the word “misunderstanding” in separate statements in explaining themselves, and Chelsea fined Arrizabalaga one week’s worth of wages for his insubordination. In his statement, Sarri said his keeper “realises he made a big mistake in the way he reacted” and added “he has apologised to me, his team-mates and the club.”
The apology, though, offers no insight into whether Arrizabalaga will be in goal for this contest. Football media throughout England have been sent into overdrive because of the incident, with some publications talking of dressing-room rifts with players in support of Caballero and the club desperate to avoid another bust-up similar to the one between Antonio Conte and Diego Costa that ultimately contributed to Conte’s demise at Stamford Bridge and Sarri’s arrival.
In the Premier League picture, Chelsea (15-5-6) are sixth in the table on 50 points, three points behind fourth-place Manchester United with a match in hand. The Pensioners are also still vying for a back-door entry into the Champions League via the Europa League, having progressed to the round of 16 opposite Dynamo Kyiv.
Chelsea’s 3-0 second-leg win over Malmo that preceded Sunday’s loss took away some of the sting of their 6-0 battering by City a fortnight ago that prompted a fresh round of inquest regarding Sarri’s future. Those questions will continue until the final whistle of Chelsea’s final match, with the club’s ban on signings the next two transfer windows also playing a key role in the club’s future.
Less than 25 kilometres to the north, Tottenham Hotspur (20-0-7) look to regroup from a lost opportunity to draw closer in the title race. Owning a match in hand on Manchester City last weekend, the Spurs squandered it with a 2-1 defeat at Burnley on Saturday. The loss, coupled with Liverpool’s draw at Manchester United, dropped the Lilywhites six points behind the table-topping Reds with 11 matches to play and five adrift of City for second.
Harry Kane made an instant impact on his return from an eight-game absence due to an ankle injury, scoring a contentious second-half equalizer, but a late breakdown led to a controversial goal for the hosts and an incandescent Mauricio Pochettino blasting referee Mike Dean post-match.
“It’s very disappointing,” Kane told Spurs’ official website. “It was one of those games, a tough battle, a dry pitch, we know how Burnley play, especially at home and it was physical. We did well to get back into it at 1-1 but we couldn’t find the next level to push on and get the win and then unfortunately we conceded again.
“It’s a game we should be winning. We had time off, so we were fresh and we expected to come here and step it up a level and give it a massive push for the rest of the season. Now it puts us behind and in a tough position. It’s a big week to come and we have to move on as best we can.”
Pochettino admitted afterwards he “crossed a line” in confronting Dean, and the FA agreed as it handed down two charges of improper conduct at the Argentine boss on Monday. The charges could bring a touchline ban after this match for Pochettino, who is about to embark on the biggest week of the season for Spurs as they play back-to-back derbies – Tottenham host Arsenal in the third north London grudge match – ahead of their second-leg round of 16 Champions League tie at Borussia Dortmund in which they will try to protect a 3-0 lead earned at Wembley earned a fortnight ago.
One minor point for this match is Dean was taken off fourth official duties for this match due to his tete-a-tete with Pochettino. Dean was moved to the Manchester City-West Ham United match, and Andre Marriner was tabbed as his replacement.
This is the fourth match between the sides this term, with Spurs looking for a measure of revenge after being bounced on penalties after the second leg of the Carabao Cup semifinals at Stamford Bridge on Jan. 24 after failing to protect a one-goal lead from the first leg.
Despite Spurs claiming victories in two of the three matches, the only one they showed clear superiority was in their 3-1 win at Wembley in November when Pochettino opted for a diamond midfield that isolated Jorginho and exploited the Italian in Sarri’s 4-3-3 set-up. In the last match, though, Chelsea claimed a 2-1 victory through goals by N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard. Fernando Llorente’s goal for Spurs created a 2-2 aggregate that resulted in penalties to decide the match.
Last season, Tottenham recorded their first Premier League win in 26 tries (1-9-16) at Stamford Bridge with a 3-1 victory thanks to a brace by Dele Alli.
It will surprise everyone and no one regardless of who is in goal for Chelsea. That said, this game has become the latest chapter in a series of referendums regarding Sarri’s future at Stamford Bridge, with more and more evidence piling up against him before he and the Pensioners bounce back with a noble effort like the one they put forth Sunday at Wembley before Arrizabalaga sent things haywire.
In the bigger picture beyond this match, it is possible Chelsea could be “stuck” with the Italian gaffer. What manager is going to walk into Stamford Bridge with the club having to appeal a two-transfer window ban with the potential of both Hazard and now Arrizabalaga potentially leaving at season’s end. And that could directly tie into an exodus in which fellow players Willian, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek possibly fly the coop.
With owner Roman Abramovich an owner in absentia and director Marina Granovskaia essentially running the club’s day-to-day operation, there is a leadership vacuum between the pitch and the board that keeps growing with each negative result. Sarri is honest, perhaps too much to a fault, and based on his refusal to commit to Kepa for this match in Tuesday’s presser, it is clear he has Granovskaia’s backing and holds the hammer.
But if Chelsea throw up another clunker like they did at the Etihad, or at Bournemouth, or against United, it is very possible everything will go up for grabs at Cobham. Former assistant Steve Holland’s name has started surfacing as a potential replacement, though one of the reasons why he left Stamford Bridge to be an assistant for the national team was because he kept getting passed over for being “the guy.” Asking him to rescue this team in any form — Europa League run, top-four finish, etc., is akin to a suicide run for a potential club coaching career he would be wise to decline.
On the other side are Spurs, who are coming off a Pyrrhic defeat in which they got Kane back and suffered a crippling loss to their title hopes at Burnley. The England talisman instantly showed his quality upon his return, and while the loss to the Clarets is obviously sub-optimal, the sight of Kane and Son leading Tottenham’s attack means they are most assuredly not out of the title race.
Six points over the final 11 matches may be a bridge too far, but they have a chance entering their biggest week of matches in recent memory with back-to-back London derbies and a better than 50/50 chance to see of Borussia Dortmund in Germany with a three-goal cushion and no road goals conceded.
Pochettino has gracefully climbed down from his tete-a-tete with Dean, to the point where it seems possible the FA will let the Argentine walk with a fine as opposed to a touchline ban that would start with Sunday’s clash with Arsenal.
Even with their exit on penalties in the Carabao Cup semis, Spurs are a bad matchup for Chelsea when they are in the mood. Even with a three-man back, the Lilywhites will create triangles around Jorginho to isolate him, and both Kane and Son are canny and willing runners who can find open spaces to run onto and run by the midfielder to create scoring changes.
There are far too many subplots for this match to keep straight, and it will start as soon as the team sheets are released. There is still some good old-fashioned animosity between these sides — as per any derby — and the fireworks should be something to behold from the moment the gates open at Stamford Bridge.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Tottenham Hotspur 2.