Ruben Loftus-Cheek's Stoppage-Time Goal Leads Chelsea to 2-1 Win vs. Cardiff

Rory Marsden@@roomarsdenFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2019

CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 31:   Willian of Chelsea battles for possession with cc11 during the Premier League match between Cardiff City and Chelsea FC at Cardiff City Stadium on March 31, 2019 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Chelsea moved within a point of the Premier League's top four as they beat Cardiff City 2-1 in Wales on Sunday thanks to Ruben Loftus-Cheek's stoppage-time winner.  

After losing four of their last five away league games, the Blues earned a crucial victory at the Cardiff City Stadium, but it was a hugely laboured performance.

After a meek first-half showing from the visitors, Cardiff took the lead through Victor Camarasa early in the second half.

The hosts looked set for a valuable victory, but Cesar Azpilicueta equalised in controversial fashion six minutes from time.

And Loftus-Cheek then netted the winner in the first minute of added time to earn Chelsea a barely deserved three points. 

It means Maurizio Sarri's side remain firmly in the race to qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League.

Cardiff, meanwhile, are five points from safety with seven matches remaining of the 2018-19 season.


Sarri's Selection Errors Push Him Closer to Exit Door Despite Win

Sarri's position as Chelsea manager had stabilised slightly in recent weeks after Blues fans openly revolted against him during their 2-0 home defeat to Manchester United back in February:

James Olley @JamesOlley

Sarri replaces Kovacic with Barkley and some #cfc fans respond with a chant of: “You don’t know what you’re doing.” Now a louder chant of: “F*** Sarriball.”

However, defeat to Everton followed by Sunday's performance against Cardiff will likely put his future in doubt once again.

The Blues' poor showing in the Welsh capital was largely down to Sarri's selection.

As soon as the teamsheet was released and it was revealed Eden Hazard would start on the bench, it was clear Chelsea would struggle to break down Cardiff, who understandably set up defensively:

B/R Football @brfootball

Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante have been dropped to the bench for Chelsea’s game against Cardiff City https://t.co/A1bj5Zixzn

And so it proved, as the visitors failed to muster a shot on target in the first half, with Pedro's dipping effort over the bar in the 11th minute their best chance of the opening period.

Match of the Day @BBCMOTD

74% possession, but Chelsea failed to have a shot on target in that first half 😳 #CARCHE https://t.co/4BCblRRumN

Sarri explained to Sky Sports before the match why he was resting the Belgian:

Sky Sports Premier League @SkySportsPL

Maurizio Sarri explains his team selection as Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante and Callum Hudson-Odoi all start on the bench in Cardiff. More: https://t.co/jbI7BWlKx1 https://t.co/pnKTBHhnj3

But even with Hazard potentially fatigued, there were other ways Sarri could have made his side more incisive.

Callum Hudson-Odoi recently made a fine case to be included in Chelsea's starting XI by impressing with England but never made it on to the pitch.

And Olivier Giroud had to watch from the bench for 76 minutes as Gonzalo Higuain again proved ineffective leading the attack.

Matt Law @Matt_Law_DT

Big Chelsea team news story is around Hazard, Kante and Hudson-Odoi not playing. But it also seems harsh not to give Giroud a go. Five goals in his last three starts for Chelsea and France. Higuain three in 10 since joining #cfc

Despite Chelsea's failings in the first half, Sarri made no changes at the break, and Cardiff duly went ahead moments into the second half thanks to Camarasa's nonchalant volley from just inside the box.

The Blues failed to properly clear a long throw from the hosts, and Camarasa hit Harry Arter's ball first time into the back of the net.

Sarri reacted by throwing on Hazard for Pedro, and Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho soon after, but there was no system change.

Nor was there when Higuain was replaced by Giroud, a switch that did not go down well with the travelling fans, as journalist Dan Levene noted:

Dan Levene @danlevene

Chelsea sub: Giroud on for Higuain. "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING," sing Chelsea's support. Then: "OOOH, HUDSON-ODOI!"

Dan Levene @danlevene

More "WE WANT SARRI OUT," from Chelsea's fans. The open hostility from Chelsea's support towards Maurizio Sarri is now, in many ways, eclipsing that which was shown to Rafa Benitez. This surely can't continue for much longer.

There was more than a whiff of controversy about Azpilicueta's equaliser in the 84th minute. 

As NBC Sports Soccer shared, the Spaniard was clearly offside when he headed home Marcos Alonso's flick-on, but the goal was allowed:

NBC Sports Soccer @NBCSportsSoccer

👀 https://t.co/tkFw6NbWU9

Martyn Ziegler @martynziegler

That missed offside could have cost Cardiff the best part of £100m. Whatever people’s feeling on VAR, at least it gets those decisions right.

Moments later, Rudiger arguably should have been sent off after bringing down Kenneth Zohore, but he only received a yellow card.

And then Loftus-Cheek met Willian's cross with a powerful header to break Cardiff hearts in the cruellest fashion.

James Pearce @JamesPearceEcho

Got to feel for Cardiff there. Absolutely robbed by shambolic officiating. Could have a massive impact on their relegation scrap.

It was a good result for Chelsea, and they are still in the race to finish in the top four. But Sunday's performance did little to strengthen Sarri's case to continue at Chelsea into next term.


What's Next?

Both Chelsea and Cardiff are back in Premier League action Wednesday. The Blues play Brighton & Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge, and Cardiff visit Manchester City