Chelsea struggle to mask deficiencies of Maurzio Sarri's debut season even if top four and Europa League title are achieved

A fine start to the campaign has given way to months of floundering and flatlining, interrupted by Eden Hazard’s brilliance

Soccer Football - Europa League Semi Final First Leg - Eintracht Frankfurt v Chelsea - Commerzbank-Arena, Frankfurt, Germany - May 2, 2019  Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri before the match   Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith
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Almost there. Chelsea could achieve one of their objectives for the season on Sunday. Victory against Watford, coupled with results elsewhere, could book them a Premier League top-four finish. At another club, under different circumstances, it would be a cause for celebration

Perhaps not at Chelsea. There is the sense they are limping over the line. Had they achieved their results in reverse, there would be more momentum and excitement.

Instead, a stellar start to the season has been followed by six months of unconvincing floundering and flatlining, interrupted by Eden Hazard's brilliance. The dynamics of the top-four race are such that two clubs may seem to secure Uefa Champions League football by default.

Chelsea's season has contained their worst defeat for 28 years, a hideous run of away form, open dissent from the supporters against the manager, a mutiny from a goalkeeper – "it's not something I'm proud of," Kepa Arrizabalaga said this week – that brought embarrassment in the League Cup final and a blend of indignities.

There are, of course, plenty of clubs who would happily trade places with them, but Chelsea’s combination of ambition, budget and recent history can lend an unsatisfactory feel to a season that may yet deliver a sort of success on two fronts, yet which seemed to promise more.

Even a week that could bring vindication still offered confusion. Sarri underlined his status as the most misunderstood man in English football by benching Hazard for Thursday’s first leg of the Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, a decision that reportedly bemused his employers.

Sarri's explanation was both logical and illogical: Hazard may have to play 70 games a season for club and country. The Belgian's cameo in Germany took him to 56, but it all prompted the question of why Sarri had not reduced his workload earlier by resting him for lesser fixtures. That Chelsea emerged from Frankfurt with a draw owed much to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, one of the success stories of Sarri's coaching.

And yet there may be too few. Hazard has never contributed to more goals in a Chelsea shirt, and yet he feels impervious to surroundings, performing neither because nor in spite of Sarri.

The Italian’s allies represent altogether more controversial figures. Jorginho was excellent in Frankfurt but has been booed this season, a cipher for supporters’ dislike of Sarriball. Gonzalo Higuain has been a shadow of his former self, albeit not physically. A man who delivered 36 league goals for Sarri in a Serie A season has contributed four in as many months for Chelsea. There are no grounds to turn his loan into a permanent transfer.

It highlights the way the striking issue remains unresolved. Uncertainties abound, not all Sarri’s fault. His inflexible belief in 4-3-3 has compounded problems and failed to bring the best from too many of his players, but Chelsea’s future contains more questions than answers.

Hazard’s Stamford Bridge career is nearing an end, Chelsea are facing a transfer ban and an ageing team has scarcely been given a jolt of youth; Sarri was too slow to select the now injured Callum Hudson-Odoi.

The spine of his side consists of his supporters, in David Luiz, Jorginho and Higuain; each could be less pivotal under another manager. There is a comparison to be drawn between Sarri and the manager he may pip to fourth place and face in the Europa League final.

Succeed on both fronts and there is a case to say he has done a better job than Unai Emery. Yet Chelsea’s squad, while flawed, was superior, their transfer spend greater, their ceiling higher. A failure to qualify for the Champions League would be underachievement. Sarri’s feat, such as it is, may be to prevent that.