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Sarri sets Chelsea title challenge target after ‘good first step’ this season

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Season review from the manager

Chelsea FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

On the back of his club-record points haul and exciting, progressive style of football at Napoli, Maurizio Sarri was identified by Chelsea as the man to finally give Roman Abramovich what he’s been craving ever since he bought the club in 2003. Sarri promised goals, vertical movement, quick passing, and lots of “fun” (his word) — Guardiola’s Barcelona without all the boring parts. What we’ve gotten instead have mostly been the boring parts.

Sarri’s tenure started off well enough, with a 12-match unbeaten run (18 in all competitions), but as soon as the fixtures piled up, the wheels began to come off, cracks appeared, widened, and eventually formed deep, deep chasms of embarrassment, such as the 6-0 and 4-0 thrashings at the hands of Manchester City and Bournemouth, respectively. Sarri, seemingly on the verge of sacking, finally loosened his ideological grip on the team, found some pragmatism, introduced a bit of youth, and has almost righted the ship. With three games to go, Chelsea find themselves back the the top four, in part due to the hilarious capitulation of Arsenal and Manchester United over the last few matchweeks.

In his pre-match press conference ahead of tomorrow’s massive showdown at Old Trafford, Sarri was asked if Chelsea finishing outside the top-four would constitute failure. Achieving that goal (i.e. qualification for the Champions League) is generally seen as the minimum requirement for any manager in any season for Abramovich Era Chelsea, which perhaps explains why Sarri chose to answer a slightly different question, highlighting instead what he sees as progress made this season and the improvement that needs to happen in the next.

“No [it’s not a failure]. We played [The League Cup] final. We lost the final on penalties. We are in the semi-final in the Europa League. We are fighting for the top four. So the season, at the moment, is good.

“Of course we have two very, very strong targets: we want the top four in the Premier League and, at the moment, we want to go to the final of the Europa League. If we are able to get to the final, then we will want to win the final. And so I think the season is, at the moment, good.”

Sarri did not have the most ideal start to life at Chelsea, trying to instill a drastic change in style during a few short summer weeks disrupted by delays in his Napoli exit, the drama surrounding Conte’s exit at Chelsea, players returning late from the World Cup, and a shortened transfer window. It also didn’t help that Chelsea lacked quality in some departments, had an overly bloated squad in other areas, with several players in decline and on the wrong side of 30. Throw in Sarri’s own tactical rigidity and stubbornness, and a fourth place finish becomes expected and acceptable.

For now.

Sarri’s future may be uncertain, but if he does get Chelsea back into the Champions League via either route, he will be back to continue this project next season. With or without him, we must set our sights higher.

“Of course, a very difficult season. We lost in the wrong way two or three matches, so the feeling, sometimes, is worse. I think for this reason because we lost two or three matches in the wrong way, in a very wrong way, without fighting.

“But if you look at the season, we are doing well, I think. Of course, it’s only the first step. We need to improve more. We need to become competitive for the top. The first step, though, is good.”

— Maurizio Sarri; source: Evening Standard

Victory at Old Trafford would be even better. Our Champions League destiny is in our control. It’s time we actually assume responsibility and finish strong.