What a difference a goal makes.
If a score can restore a striker’s confidence, then what about an entire team?
Reeling from the midweek loss to Wolves and facing seemingly unstoppable Manchester City at home amidst a sea of doubt and criticism, for the first 45 minutes Chelsea held on like grim death.
On the few occasions that they had the ball, they struggled to execute the simple, short passes that Maurizio Sarri demands of them.
“Because we were in trouble to put pressure to take defenders in the opponent half so we had to defend in our half but it wasn’t a choice.
“We know very well that the ball possession is usual for us, today was a problem and so we knew very well that maybe there were more spaces for counters but it wasn’t a total choice.”
Then, on only Chelsea’s sixth pass in City’s final third, Eden Hazard sent the ball more-or-less blindly into an open space in City’s box.
In came a charging N’Golo Kanté to put it solidly into the roof of Ederson’s net.
“I think that today he scored by chance because they played very close to Jorginho more than in the other matches. He defended very well, some counters were good and he was in the box in the first goal but I think that today he played in the right position, very close to Jorginho.”
6 - Eden Hazard's assist for N'Golo Kante's goal was just one of six passes that Chelsea completed in the final third of the pitch versus Manchester City in the opening 45 minutes of this match (Man City completed 53). Snatched. pic.twitter.com/ofH9akNgx8— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 8, 2018
And from then on, Chelsea were a team transformed. They showed the kind of commitment that Sarri says is too often missing against lesser opponents.
“We defended very well and then we started to press better and after the first goal the match changed and we played well in the first 20 of the second half and in the end we deserved to win and I am happy with it.
“It’s not easy to win against Man City.
“For me it isn’t easy to win against Guardiola but we need to find this kind of motivation and we need to play with the level of determination in the other matches otherwise it’s useless to win a match like this.”
Once Kanté scored, Chelsea’s overall willingness to take on City increased. Every ball was challenged. The passes were surer and more accurate. The Blues played with the character and confidence that Sarri bemoaned was missing in Wolverhampton.
“We won today but we must say we were a bit lucky in the first 25 minutes because they could score, so a bit lucky in the first half and a very good second half.
“I think we have a team with some difficulties to be motivated and in this matches it’s easy to have great motivation and level of determination and right level of pressing but then during the season you must play with a small team and for example, the next match we have to go to Brighton and there will be three points so we need to continue with all of those otherwise we can win this game and then lose points at other matches.”
It was a day for rare statistics.
It was just Kanté’s second goal of the season. David Luiz had last scored a Premier League goal for Chelsea in August — of last year. Sarri was pleased to see him play well after his recent stumbles.
“I have to say that I am very happy. There are matches like this one in which it is easier to stay on the defensive line because the movement is working very well, but there are matches where it is difficult like Tottenham.
“All the team have been very well.”
Also, Chelsea are unbeaten at Stamford Bridge against the defending Premier League champion since 2002. Pep Guardiola has now lost three times in the league to Chelsea, the most he’s lost against any club.
And for Sarri, it was his first win ever against Pep Guardiola.
“I am happy to win against Guardiola but I know very well they are a step ahead and in another step and I think we have to work and cover the gaps and we are not sure to be able to cover it and we must try.”
In the short term, the winners are Chelsea, of course.
But in the long term, the real winner may be Maurizio Sarri. This unlikely victory, against a team generally acknowledged to be the best in the Premier League, will buy him belief. Belief from his players, belief from management and belief from the support.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.