London: Maurizio Sarri has challenged Chelsea to secure an upbeat finish to a turbulent season that plunged the club into chaos and threatened to cost the Italian his job.
Sarri’s side travel to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday knowing they are five matches away from rescuing their troubled campaign.
The Blues sit fourth in the Premier League with just two games left in the battle to qualify for the Champions League.
Chelsea are two points above fifth placed Arsenal and three ahead of sixth placed Manchester United, with games against Watford and Leicester to come.
They are also favourites to secure a Europa League final berth after being handed a last four clash with unheralded Eintracht.
Booking a place in the Champions League, either by winning the Europa League or finishing in the Premier League’s top four, would be a significant achievement given the self-inflicted wounds Chelsea have endured this term.
After a painful period that saw widespread reports he was on the verge of being sacked, Chelsea boss Sarri has managed to keep his job while guiding the west Londoners towards a season-salvaging finale.
Urging his players to finish the job, Sarri said: “We are fighting for the top four and in semi-final of the Europa League. We have done a good season.
“Now we need to take two very important targets.”
Achieving those goals is likely to be a fraught journey on the evidence of Chelsea’s rollercoaster campaign.
Even now the problems keep coming for Sarri after Antonio Rudiger was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury on Tuesday.
The Germany defender is understood to be set for an operation in Italy, having limped out of Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United.
It has been a baptism of fire for Sarri since his move from Napoli last year and the 60-year-old has looked increasingly frazzled by the experience.
His frustration finally boiled over in last week’s tetchy draw against Burnley when he responded to some ripe language from the Clarets bench with a blast at the officials which saw him sent off and subsequently fined by the Football Association for misconduct.
On that occasion Sarri could say he was provoked, but he had only himself to blame for many of Chelsea’s woes.
It all started so well for Sarri as Chelsea kicked off the season with an 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
But the early bouquets quickly turned to brickbats after Chelsea stumbled badly in the unforgiving winter months.
Sarri’s players grew frustrated by his rigid game-plan and his monotonous training sessions, with his reliance on the under-whelming Jorginho as his defensive midfield linchpin especially vexing given the quality N’Golo Kante had shown in a similar role in previous seasons.
Sarri’s attempts to solve Chelsea’s attacking woes by playing Eden Hazard as a makeshift centre forward irritated the Belgian winger and rarely proved successful anyway.
Shipping out the woeful Alvaro Morata on loan to Atletico Madrid was a plus, but Sarri’s decision to recruit his former Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain on loan from Juventus has backfired.
Angered at their team’s decline, Chelsea fans have turned on Sarri several times, most notably in the FA Cup defeat against Manchester United when he was subjected to vitriolic abuse from the Stamford Bridge stands.
By the time Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga staged an astonishing mutiny during the League Cup final loss to Manchester City — the Spaniard’s refusal to be substituted leaving Sarri raging on the touchline — it appeared only a matter of time before the axe fell for the Italian.
Yet from the rubble of Chelsea’s shattered dreams, Sarri has an opportunity for survival.
Despite drawing their last two league games, Chelsea’s top four bid is still in their own hands, while they are within touching distance of Europa League success.
However, Kepa, now back in Sarri’s good books, is aware Chelsea can’t afford anymore slips.
“The last few weeks have shown us, more than anything, that no game is easy, whoever you are,” Kepa said.
“We have to be prepared, stay attentive, maintain our focus, train hard. We can’t let this precious opportunity that we have escape us.”