Sarri reasserts power, dropping Kepa and beating Tottenham

<p>
              Chelsea's Pedro, left, celebrates with his teammate Eden Hazard after scoring his side's opening goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge stadium, in London, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
            </p>

LONDON (AP) — Maurizio Sarri reasserted his authority on the sideline, and so did Chelsea on the field.

After Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted in the League Cup final, Sarri was determined to send by a message to the world’s most expensive goalkeeper by dropping him for Wednesday’s game against Tottenham.

“Kepa made a big mistake,” Sarri said. “He had to pay for it with the team.”

He wasn’t missed at all.

In fact, replacement Willy Caballero had little to do as Chelsea enjoyed a 2-0 victory over a Tottenham side that failed to get a shot on target for the first time in a Premier League game since 2013.

While Chelsea remains sixth, the win over its third-place London rival roused a team and a manager seemingly in turmoil a week ago after being knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United.

“It’s normal if you lose two matches in a row you are under pressure,” Sarri said, “maybe more (pressure) at Chelsea.”

Instead, it was a calamitous night for Tottenham.

Pedro Rodriguez cut through the defense and poked the ball through goalkeeper Hugo Lloris‘ legs in the 57th minute.

Caballero created the second in the 84th, with a long ball flicked on by Olivier Giroud. Instead of making a simple clearance, Kieran Trippier inexplicably sent a back pass beyond his own goalkeeper — Lloris — and into the net, displaying the instinct of a striker rather than a defender.

With a second successive loss, Tottenham hopes of securing one of the four Champions League qualification spots for a fourth successive year are in the balance.

Tottenham Hotspur,” Chelsea fans chanted, “it’s happening again.”

It was a cutting reminder of the failure to win the league since 1961 and Tottenham losing ground whenever it looks to be challenging for a title. Tottenham didn’t manage a shot on target for the first time in a league game since December 2013.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side has fallen eight points behind Manchester City and nine adrift of leader Liverpool, even with top scorer Harry Kane back from injury for the last two games.

“I’m not afraid. I am free in my mind,” Pochettino said. “It’s not a drama.”

Fourth-place Arsenal has closed the gap on Tottenham to four points and Manchester United is only a further point behind.

Across London, Arsenal beat Bournemouth 5-1 with its fans chanting: “Tottenham Hotspur, we’re coming for you.”

Coming up next even, in Saturday’s north London derby at Wembley Stadium.

The next day Chelsea has a short trip across west London to relegation-threatened Fulham. Just the type of fixture Sarri needs to dampen uncertainty over his future.

“I spoke with the club two or three times in the last few days,” Sarri told reporters. “The problem wasn’t so big as you wrote. Maybe it wasn’t the truth, I don’t know, but it’s not a big problem for me.”

Chelsea has now gone three games without conceding. After beating Malmo 3-0 in the Europa League last Thursday, Chelsea held Manchester City scoreless in the League Cup final through 120 minutes only to lose on penalties.

Sarri wanted to substitute a seemingly injured Kepa before that shootout only for his goalkeeper to refuse to obey orders. While Chelsea tried to dismiss it as a misunderstanding, Kepa was fined a week’s wages on Monday and forced to apologize.

Kepa, who joined in August for 80 million euros (then $93 million), was reduced to a spectator against Tottenham as player power at Chelsea was subdued.

“It’s a message to my group,” Sarri said. “That we are a group, we are 25 players.”

But Kepa remains the first-choice goalkeeper.

“We cannot kill him,” Sarri said. “When you are young you can make mistakes.”