Date: 1st April 2019 at 5:44pm
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A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s match away to Cardiff City.

Chelsea returned from the international break with a trip to Wales to face relegation threatened Cardiff City. As The Blues aimed to get their top 4 aspirations back on track, a trip to a team who are 5 points adrift of safety would have been just what they would have wanted.

The Blues had suffered another frustrating away defeat last time out and the questions were mounting over the tactical set up and the mental strength of Maurizio Sarri’s team. Winners always state that when you stumble the best solution is to get straight back up and try again. Yes, Everton do have a number of quality players, who took full advantage of the situation against Chelsea, and so away to Cardiff should offer a better opportunity for Sarri’s team to redeem themselves.

The manager opted to not choose most of the players who had excelled for their countries during the international break. So Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante and Callum Hudson-Odoi were all benched, while Willian and Pedro started in support of Gonzalo Higuain in attack after they were not involved over the last weekend. The main exception was Ross Barkley, who had thrived in a freer role for Gareth Southgate’s England, lined up alongside Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in central midfield. Sarri kept with his most experienced defensive line up in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal.

Cardiff manager Neil Warnock was able to name the same starting XI that had beaten West Ham in their last outing with an impressive display. Against The Hammers, they were able to remain strong in defence but also caused problems on the counter attack, and they would have been hoping for a similar performance against The Blues.

The first half played out as most would have expected. Chelsea had plenty of possession, while Cardiff tried to counter when they could and looked dangerous at set pieces. This might sound similar to the Everton match, but this was a far worse opening spell for The Blues. Possession was ponderous at best and regularly slowed to walking pace. The home defence comfortably dealt with Chelsea’s efforts and Higuain struggled for any space as his markers swarmed around him.

The end result was an opening 45 minutes in which The Blues failed to muster a single attempt on target. Then, with further similarities to their last match, Chelsea were punished at the start of the second half for their lethargic play. The host’s most impressive player, Victor Camarasa hit his first time shot beautifully and it rifled in to the net. It was a quality finish from a side not renowned for their aesthetic football.

But this was worse than 2 weeks ago. Far worse. As many have pointed out, Chelsea’s control on possession is unimportant when they lack any sort of cutting edge. To make matters worse, their play was very lethargic and they regularly lost possession thanks to poor passing and uncoordinated movement. Sarri’s team looked far from likely to turn the match around and the atmosphere became a little sour.

Eden Hazard was brought on to try to inject some life into Chelsea’s play and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho. This brought about a noticeable change in the team. The pace picked up and Hazard was able to ask questions to the home defence that had previously had all of Chelsea’s forward play shackled. However, the rough treatment he received was indicative of a Warnock side and maybe helped in the reason why he hadn’t started the match.

Olivier Giroud replaced a forlorn looking Higuain. The Argentinian had been left isolated for most of the match and regularly retreated deep to get the occasional touch. As the hosts began to tire, Chelsea slowly built some momentum and applied some pressure on the Cardiff goal. However they still struggled to trouble Etheridge in the home goal.

This is until a lack of VAR and a poor decision from the linesman allowed Cesar Azpilicueta to flick in the equaliser. It was harsh on the home side but things were only going to get worse for them. The Blues continued to press and Loftus-Cheek headed in at the far post to increase the Cardiff frustrations. The loss was extremely likely before the kick off, but the manner of Chelsea’s performance and the late goals added to the blow this result has on The Bluebirds relegation chances.

However the result reinvigorates Chelsea’s attempts to break back in to the top 4. After Spurs’s loss at Anfield, The Blues lie just 1 point from 3rd place and the battle for Champions League qualification continues to intensify. With a home match against a Brighton side who are on a poor run of form coming next, Chelsea are back in the thick of it. That in itself comes as a surprise when you watch how Sarri’s team play for long periods of their matches.

Neil Warnock and all who follow The Bluebirds will point their finger and vent their anger at the match officials for them losing. However they forget that in the first half, with the score still at 0-0, Antonio Rudiger was clearly pulled to the floor and a more capable set of officials, or even VAR, would have awarded The Blues a penalty. A Chelsea goal in the first half would surely have led to a far more comfortable victory and would have seen no complaints from the home manager and their supporters. The decision also set a precedent for which Rudiger took full advantage of in his own area. As for the German’s yellow card, it could easily be perceived as a deliberate action from the Cardiff player who would not have reached the ball before Arrizabalaga.

The debate on these decisions will continue, but at least next season VAR would have ensured the correct decision would have been made in the first half. But the most relieved man would have been Maurizio Sarri. Once again his starting line up rarely put the fear in their opponents. With such deep lying central midfielders, there is a distinct lack of support making strong forward runs into the penalty box. Loftus-Cheek proved what a difference an advancing central player can make and his goal topped off a very influential performance.

The question now will be if Sarri will allow his midfield to open up more against the teams outside the top 6. With 4 home league matches against such opposition still to come there is time for him to adjust accordingly and that could be the platform on which his team could qualify for next season’s premier European competition.

Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue