Maurizio Sarri admitted tired Chelsea got “lucky” as they moved to the brink of Champions League qualification with a 3-0 win over Watford on Sunday.
Sarri’s side were booed off after a sloppy first half, but two goals in three minutes from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and David Luiz lifted the mood at Stamford Bridge.
Gonzalo Higuain sealed the victory and third placed Chelsea are now one point clear of fourth placed Tottenham after their first win in four games in all competitions.
If the Blues win their last league game of the season at Leicester next Sunday they will be certain to qualify for next season’s Champions League via a top-four finish. Sarri conceded he was relieved to survive such a poor opening.
“In the first half we were in trouble because we were tired physically and mentally. But Watford lowered their level after that. We were lucky of course,” Sarri said.
“After the first goal probably we improved mentally and were able to play very well for 35 minutes. It’s not easy to play again after a Europa League away match.
“We were not able to think in a simple way. When you are tired you have to move the ball quickly, the ball is not tired, the man is!”
Before heading to Leicester, Chelsea host Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semifinals on Thursday, with the tie poised at 1-1 after the first leg.
Finishing in the top four and winning the Europa League would make Sarri’s troubled first season a relative success.
“We want to be in the top four at the end of the season. We want to be in the Champions League,” he said.
“The Europa League is also a very important competition and we want to win it because we think we deserve to a trophy this season. So we have two targets.”
But even now Sarri, who has struggled to win over his squad, can’t escape murmurs of dissent.
The former Napoli boss awoke to more unrest on Sunday after out-of-favour Blues defender Gary Cahill blasted Sarri.
Cahill has made just eight appearances this season and claims he has been shown a lack of respect by Sarri.
“I see some of the situations with players who won the title with Chelsea, not just myself, and it just hasn’t been right,” the long-serving Cahill told the Sunday Telegraph.
“It makes it very hard for me to have respect for someone who has not respected what some of us have won with the club.”
Cahill was given a standing ovation by Chelsea fans when Sarri sent him on in the final minutes and the Italian played peace-maker as he insisted he had no problems with the centre-back.
“Cahill was really very professional. He played only a few matches but was really important in the training ground and the dressing room,” he said.
“Today was the last match for him at Chelsea so I thought it was important to be on the pitch for a few minutes to say goodbye.”
Struggling to find any rhythm, Chelsea were indebted to a stunning save from Kepa Arrizabalaga, who leapt high to his right to brilliantly claw away Troy Deeney’s header.
Adding to a concerning start for Chelsea, they lost France midfielder N’Golo Kante to a hamstring injury after 10 minutes.
Urging his players to “pass, pass, pass”, Sarri’s promptings almost brought a reward when Pedro went close with a 20-yard blast after a neat link-up with Higuain.
But Eden Hazard was beginning to warm to his task and the Belgian, without whom Chelsea would be completely toothless, helped Sarri’s men silence the doubters in the 48th minute.
When Hazard took a short corner, he collected Pedro’s return pass and flicked a cross towards the far post, where Loftus-Cheek rose above Nathaniel Chalobah to head home from close-range.
Chelsea struck again from another corner three minutes later as Hazard’s delivery was met by Luiz with a thumping header past Foster.
Higuain put the result beyond doubt when he scored just the fifth goal of his loan spell from Juventus in the 75th minute.