Richard Buxton: Sarri's gamble nearly backfires
Chelsea needed late goals to save their blushes, after Sarri started with Hazard on the bench
Playing Russian roulette remains par for the course at Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich era, and Maurizio Sarri's latest gamble staved off calls for the absentee owner's hand to be forced.
A decision to rest key individuals risked backfiring on the chain-smoking Italian against Cardiff City last night.
Neil Warnock's side had appeared to be a free hit for the Blues to end a dismal run of four losses in five away English Premier League games since the start of the year.
Yet the smash-and-grab nature of the 2-1 win in the Welsh capital nearly threatened to make a mockery of Sarri's plans to conserve Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante for a run-in which is set to boil down to the Europa League or bust for Sarri and his employers.
If the former Napoli manager is to salvage anything from the wreckage of his current tenure, going all the way in Europe's secondary competition has increasingly become his only hope.
Even that may not be enough, judging by the growing mutiny in the away section at the Cardiff City Stadium. Disparaging chants about "Sarriball" have grown in volume and regularity in recent weeks.
Predictably, another summer of change still beckons at Stamford Bridge.
Hazard's 47 matches of front-line duty was only fractionally surpassed by a half-century for Kante. Yet within six minutes of falling behind to Victor Camarasa's well-hit opener at the beginning of the second half, the Belgian talisman was belatedly called to arms.
Players of Hazard's quality cannot be saved for a rainy day or even, in this case, an overcast weekend afternoon in the birthplace of Shirley Bassey, the voice behind several James Bond theme songs.
Hazard is Chelsea's very own Agent 007, with a license to kill opponents and thrill supporters in equal measure.
If Sarri became wiser after the event, his persistence with Gonzalo Higuain lacks a similar foresight as the striker departed in the 77th minute, with the game ebbing further away.
All three of Higuain's previous goals arrived against sides mired in the English Premier League's bottom three.
Scoring against a relegation-threatened Bluebirds carried a sense of inevitability that was never truly forthcoming as Chelsea's curse of the No.9 shirt continues.
His brace against Huddersfield Town accounts for two-thirds of that tally and feels even more insignificant given the Terriers' relegation to English football's second tier over the weekend.
Scoring against Fulham, who are on course to join Huddersfield, adds more fuel to the fire that he is now little more than a flat-track bully.
Sarri admitted before kick-off that Higuain needs time but that it remains in incredibly short supply as the clock ticks down on his loan spell.
The Argentinian's incendiary decision to retire from international football last week, provoking his compatriots' ire in its delivery, also appears to have arrived too little too late for him.
Cardiff's inability to avoid defeat against the EPL's top six in 16 previous meetings proved Chelsea's great redeemer, with a six-minute salvo from Cesar Azpilicueta and substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek turning the tables for Sarri.
When the Italian looks back on his forgettable season in west London, this will be little more than a Pyrrhic victory.
Misery loves company and there is still no shortage of either at the Bridge.
His only saving grace is that, for now at least, Abramovich's index finger is still out of the trigger guard.
CARDIFF: Etheridge, Peltier, Morrison, Ecuele Manga, Bennett, Gunnarsson, Arter(Ralls 81), Murphy (Mendez-Laing 89), Camarasa, Hoilett, Niasse (Zohore 86)
CHELSEA: Arrizabalaga, Alonso, Luiz, Ruediger, Azpilicueta, Barkley, Jorginho (Loftus-Cheek 64), Kovacic, Willian, Higuain (Giroud 77), Pedro (Hazard 53)
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