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From 'Sarri out' to back in the top-four race: Offside gaffe gifts Chelsea boss stay of execution

3:46 PM GMT 31/03/2019
Maurizio Sarri Cardiff vs Chelsea Premier League 2018-19
The Blues turned in a dire performance in Cardiff on Sunday but a couple of terrible calls from the officials helped them nick a crucial 2-1 win

An offside Cesar Azpilicueta goal proved the miracle that Maurizio Sarri needed as Chelsea recovered from going a goal down to claim an undeserved 2-1 victory at Cardiff on Sunday.

It was a trying afternoon for the Blues boss, who was abused by his own club's fans for the majority of another truly terrible performance, before then being subjected to Neil Warnock's ire, after his Cardiff counterpart was understandably left incandescent with rage by a couple of crucial decisions from Craig Pawson and his team of match officials.

Víctor Camarasa's strike early in the second half looked set to give Cardiff a massive win in their bid to avoid relegation, but after Azpilicueta headed home a late equaliser from a blatantly offside position, Antonio Rudiger was generously only yellow-carded as Cardiff supporters pleaded for him to be sent off for bringing down Kenneth Zohore.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek then stepped up to nick a precious victory for the visitors, who drew back to within a point of fourth-placed Manchester United thanks to their second come-from-behind win over Cardiff this season.

Sarri's starting line-up had clearly illustrated that he will not be dictated to by fans, the media or even the club's directors, as he shocked many by leaving out Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante for what was a must-win game.

He claimed the duo were rested due to their exertions on international duty, as six players who were not good enough to be selected for their national teams got the nod at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Loftus-Cheek withdrew from England selection to keep working on a chronic back problem, but he was omitted too despite the long break from football, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was once again left sitting on the bench even though he had been given his Three Lions debut by Gareth Southgate.

It was an unsurprisingly stubborn team selection from Sarri and, under the Tuscan, Chelsea games have a very similar feel to them.

The Blues move the ball too slowly to make their possession-based football effective and, in Wales, Warnock chose to replicate the same game plan many have previously employed against Chelsea to great success.

Jorginho was man-marked and Cardiff sat very deep, resulting in Chelsea enjoying plenty of possession but doing very little with it.

In addition, Hudson-Odoi didn't even get onto the pitch, which will feel like another snub for a youngster who is wanted by not only Bayern Munich, but a host of top European teams.

Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, once again started on the bench even though he is one of the continent's most in-form strikers. Consequently, Gonzalo Higuain was once again asked to lead the line.

The out-of-form striker – who even Sarri admitted beforehand is struggling to adapt to the English game – was, predictably, anonymous against Cardiff.

He wasn't the only one to disappoint against one of the league's worst sides. Cardiff hadn't beaten a 'top-six' side for 22 games and have not defeated Chelsea since 1986 but they deserved all three points against an abject Blues side.

Sarri's stubbornness is tolerable when results are positive but the club's away form in 2019 has left Chelsea's hopes of finishing in the top four in doubt.

It often is said it doesn't matter how you win, just getting the three points is enough at this stage of the season. However, Chelsea won't collect points from better sides playing this way, or get this lucky again.

Their poor performances need to be addressed, and rapidly. Otherwise, Chelsea will finish outside the Champions League places for the second consecutive season.

Their star men are simply not performing under Sarri and his blaming of his players' "mentality" is no longer an excuse being bought by the club's support, either in the stadium or on social media.

"We want Sarri out!" was chanted throughout the game in Cardiff and should serve as a huge warning for the 60-year-old.

This fortuitous comeback has done nothing but earned him a reprieve, a stay of execution. Rest assured, the chants will come back quickly if his team don't improve.

The clock has been reset on Sarri's time at Stamford Bridge but the fans remain unconvinced by a manager who is still as unpopular in west London as referee Pawson will be in the Welsh capital tonight.