London (AFP) – Maurizio Sarri must solve Chelsea’s striker crisis as his spluttering side bid to get back on track against Newcastle on Saturday.
Sarri’s fourth-placed team are clinging onto a three-point lead over fifth placed Arsenal in the Premier League, leaving them with no margin for error in the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
The root cause of Chelsea’s recent dip has been their misfiring forwards.
Plagued by injuries, Olivier Giroud has managed just five goals this season, with only one coming in the league.
Alvaro Morata has netted nine times, but just five of those goals have come in his 16 league appearances.
Morata appears to be uninterested in adapting to the demands of the physical Premier League — the former Real Madrid forward’s diffident style is the polar opposite of the bruising presence provided by Diego Costa, who fired Chelsea to two titles.
Sarri has recognised the fatal flaw in Chelsea’s squad and installed Eden Hazard as his central striker on several occasions in a bid to spark his attack.
But moving Hazard to the ‘false nine’ position was a huge gamble given the Belgian’s success on the flanks, where his sublime skills have more room to flourish.
Hazard has dropped several hints that he would prefer to remain in a wide role and his subdued performances up front have raised questions about Sarri’s tactical switch.
With Hazard refusing to rule out joining Real Madrid following interest from the European champions, Chelsea need to keep their prize asset happy.
“They’re definitely not getting the best out of Hazard,” former Tottenham and England Jermaine Jenas said.
“You get the best out of him on the left, breaking from deep, running at players. That’s how he scores a lot of his goals.
“Up top, with his back to goal, he is a lot easier to deal with.
“Chelsea are obviously a top, top side, but I think he has outgrown them. He needs to move on.”
– Impotence –
Hazard has scored just four times in his last 16 games and, while not all of them were played as a striker, it is a significant enough sample size to suggest Sarri must find another answer.
Chelsea’s failure to convert territorial dominance into goals during Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat against Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final first leg was just their latest display of attacking impotence.
Hazard was unable to escape Tottenham’s smothering defence and endured seven fouls — more than any other game this season, providing further evidence that he needs the space on the flanks to work his magic.
No wonder Sarri recently talked of wanting “characteristics” in attack and admitted to being frustrated by his team’s lack of cutting edge.
It doesn’t help that the supply lines from midfield are so uninspired at present.
Jorginho is a solid presence in front of the back four, but he rarely contributes to attacks.
N’Golo Kante looks a fish out of water in a more advanced midfield role than he is used to, while Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic, Willian and Pedro have all struggled at times this season.
Sarri has also been forced to hand Callum Hudson-Odoi a place in his starting line-up in a bid to convince the promising but raw 18-year-old to reject an offer from Bayern Munich.
Turning to the transfer market for a solution, Sarri has been linked with a move for Gonzalo Higuain, currently on loan at AC Milan from Juventus.
The Argentina striker thrived under Sarri at Napoli, scoring 36 Serie A goals during the 2015-16 season.
The deal would reportedly involve the 31-year-old joining Chelsea on loan with an option to sign permanently at the end of the season.
In theory, a visit from struggling Newcastle should offer a chance for Chelsea to play their way back into rhythm.
But the Blues can take nothing for granted after failing to score in three of their last five home league games against Everton, Leicester and Southampton.
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