The deep relief for Maurizio Sarri was that he had called his players last weekend, accusing them of being difficult to motivate, and responding magnificently.
This was an epic cup tie. A relentless, committed encounter where Chelsea won a penalty shoot-out win over Tottenham Hotspur and built a Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. It will be the first grand final that Sarri has ever denied and how he urgently needed that result.
It felt cruel to Spurs. Exhausted, suffering further injuries, deprived of all their best attackers and overwhelmed in an Eden Hazard-inspired first half, they dug deep as coach Mauricio Pochettino also deftly called for an answer.
Another trophy may have escaped him, but he did everything he could.
The fact that they scored an away goal they played through this season will make their fans complain that it was another spur-sy thing that would happen to them. In fact, this was the league cup’s first semi-final, with away goals taken since 1980, except for the overall score being set to 2: 2. “A bit of bad luck, no?” Pochettino said. Yes, that’s what it was, though Chelsea had no luck getting through.
It went straight to a penalty shootout, even in front of the Chelsea fans, who stood behind the gate in the stall of Matthew Harding. Chelsea scored all four kicks. David Luiz was penalized after the final whistle, while Eric Dier and Lucas Moura, whose efforts were rescued by Kepa Arrizabalaga, missed the Spurs.
With Gonzalo Higuain, who secured his loan, was presented to the supporters before the kick-off and sat behind the Chelsea Dugout, Hazard can assume he does not have to go through the middle again. However, Higuain will not be discouraged by Olivier Giroud, who was again a great point to attack and missed the chance to win in stoppage time.
When reinforcements arrive for Chelsea, what about Spurs? No side could do without their trio of first choice and certainly not one of the top caliber of Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min. No one can doubt their spirit or their organization, but they are stretched and sustained another injury when Ben Davies hobbled.
This groin load, which was not considered serious, was caused in exceptional circumstances when he tried to block N’Golo Kanten’s shot, which opened the score. The Spurs had cleared a corner in half with none of their players at the edge of their own penalty area. It ran to Edge, who made a deep shot through Davie’s legs as he dived, then through Moussa Sissoko’s legs – and finally through the legs of goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga to complete a bizarre triple nutmeg.
It was also Edge’s fourth goal of the season, and although his celebrations were usually embarrassing, those of his teammates were not. They soon celebrated again when the Spurs were warded off with a sloppy response to a free-kick. Chelsea quickly picked it up as Hazard hit the Spurs defense before finding Pedro, who found out the overlapping Cesar Azpilicueta. The defender pulled the ball back and Hazard led him out with a left foot over Gazzaniga.
It was Hazard’s first goal in seven games, and Chelsea was rampant. Spurs in disorder as it became increasingly violent and restless. It was almost like a relapse for the Battle of the Bridge when the title challenge of the 2016 Spurs Premier League ended.
Tackles flew in and Dier was in focus. Chelsea were excited to be collecting yellow cards – Sarri was one of the referees Martin Atkinson had booked – while Toby Alderweireld might have been lucky not to leave the field as he brought Hazard to a close after half-time.
Perhaps relieved, Pochettino had seen enough. He gave up his formation and moved to a third game, while Serge Aurier and Danny Rose – Davies’ successor – were pushed forward as the full-back. It worked. Harry Winks swung the ball to Rose on the left and Fernando Llorente struck out with David Luiz disoriented to free himself from Arrizabalaga at close range.
It was a remarkable reaction. Spurs were almost drunk and Sarri and Pochettino became more and more lively. The latter sank to the knee after a brilliant flank by Christian Eriksen – the best player of the second half – Llorente in the Chelsea area only for the first touch of the striker to let him down.
It was also Llorentes last touch – or the last bad touch – when he was replaced and his successor Lucas Moura a shot just slammed in the side net. However, it was Chelsea who worked his way up to Giroud and built chances. Giroud was denied by Gazzaniga, and Edge released Hazard just to meet him.
Presumably, Hazard was also listed as a fifth penalty by Chelsea on penalties. But it did not go so far as Luiz claimed the glory before he could.