The strong smell of stale tobacco that accompanied Maurizio Sarri when he walked into the room for Chelsea’s pre-Europa League final media day was not the only fug that surrounded him.
The Italian is known to be fond of a fag. And given the stress he has been under this season, he would be forgiven for upping his habit.
But as well as the Eau de Cancer-stick fragrance permeating the crowded press room at Chelsea’s training ground, there was a world-weariness to the Chelsea manager. Even after leading the side to third in the Premier League and a return to the Champions League for next season, even after making it to his first European final, he seemed downcast.
It wasn’t because Ruben Loftus-Cheek, one of his star players in the latter part of the season, faces four to six months out after rupturing his Achilles tendon in a friendly on a pitch of questionable quality in Boston.
‘Baku is a big problem’
Nor was it because he is likely to lead Chelsea in the Europa League final into a stadium with a minority of their own fans watching, such is the difficulty in obtaining tickets and expense of getting to Baku.
Those things irked him, no doubt. On Loftus-Cheek – or “Loftus” as he insisted on calling his player – he said he was “disappointed” that he could not call on him for the final, while the location for the final was, he admitted, “a big problem”.
No, it was that his belief that Chelsea have had a “very good season” is not shared by many others – including, if you are to read between the lines of Sarri’s words, the owner Roman Abramovich – that no doubt led to his gloominess.
Does Sarri enjoy his job?
You get the feeling that as Sarri was learning his managerial trade at clubs such as Stia, Faellese, Perugia, Grosseto and Sorrento before success at Empoli then of course Napoli, that he wouldn’t have envisaged preparing for his first European final by answering questions whether he likes his job, whether next Wednesday’s game would be his last, or whether his best players would still be at the club next season.
Fans point to Sarri’s one-dimensional playing style, his reluctance to engage pitchside and the fact that the club has bags of under-used youthful talent that are not being given a chance as reasons to beat him. But a counter to that is that if he leads Chelsea to silverware and the bounty of the Champions League, then something must be working. And anyway, Jose Mourinho didn’t exactly instill a sense of Broadway-musical jazz-hands with his tactical set-up and to this day, grown men in south-west London still show off tattoos of the man.
Sarri wondered whether fans’ negativity stems from the media’s treatment of him. But aside from the regular remarks about the manager’s tobacco habit and justified eyebrow raises over tactics, Sarri has not exactly been hounded by the fourth estate. Yes, he received criticism for the dreadful form they endured in mid-winter but Sarri was as scathing, if not more, than pundits and commentators about his team. Remember the Arsenal defeat in January, when he said his players “struggle to get themselves up for games”?
‘I can only try to improve’
But that was long ago and now he has fulfilled his mid-season promise of not needing to rely on a Europa League final victory to grab a seat back at Europe’s top table. The run of only two losses in their final 12 games of the Premier League season saw to that.
Yet still Sarri shrugged his shoulders on Wednesday, invoking a sense of pity, more than anything. Pre-cup final press conferences are not supposed to be like this.
“I don’t know what to say or do,” Sarri said. “I can only work. I can only try and improve my team. I can only try to play better, to win more matches. I don’t know what to do more. In my opinion, we had a very good season.”
He did add that “of course we have to do more”. The only problem is that victory against Arsenal may not even be enough to satisfy his boss, who has enjoyed the glint of no fewer than 15 major trophies since taking over. No wonder Sarri looked so defeated. And no wonder he needs the crutch of tobacco to lean on.