Maurizio Sarri is set to decide whether to end Kepa Arrizabalaga’s Chelsea exile at Fulham on Sunday as the under-fire Blues boss and his controversial keeper face a defining moment in their troubled season.
Sarri dropped Kepa for Chelsea’s midweek 2-0 win over Tottenham as punishment for the Spaniard’s refusal to be substituted during last weekend’s League Cup final defeat against Manchester City.
The Italian was apoplectic at Kepa’s Wembley mutiny and, already battling to avoid the sack in the midst of a nightmare campaign, he responded to the challenge to his authority by wielding the axe.
Popular Argentine veteran Willy Caballero replaced Kepa against Spurs and delivered a confident performance while the world’s most expensive keeper kicked his heels on the bench.
Whether Sarri feels compelled to recall Kepa after his slap on the wrist is the key question hanging over Chelsea as they make the short trip to take on struggling Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Sarri claimed after the Tottenham match that Kepa remained his “first choice” keeper, but on Friday he refused to confirm whether the former Athletic Bilbao star would feature against Fulham.
Instead, he said revealed Kepa and Caballero would each start one of Chelsea’s next two games, with the Fulham fixture followed by a Europa League last 16 first leg tie against Dynamo Kiev on Thursday.
“We are very happy for Willy, because now we know very well he’s able to play also in a very difficult match,” Sarri said.
“I’m sure in one of the two next matches Kepa will be on the pitch.”
Sixth placed Chelsea have no margin for error as they try to climb back into the top four.
They trail fourth placed Arsenal by three points and a shock defeat against managerless Fulham would leave Sarri back on the brink of the sack after a draining week for him and his team.
“I think we need to change three or four players, I don’t know how many exactly,” he said.
“On Sunday we played for 130 minutes and 95 minutes on Wednesday, so I need to value the recovery of every single player. Then we have to decide the team.”
While Sarri remains in a perilous position, it is second-bottom Fulham who go into the match in even more disarray after Claudio Ranieri was sacked on Thursday with the club 10 points from safety.
Ranieri departed after just four months in charge, with Fulham owner Shahid Khan making the ruthless move following a midweek loss at Southampton that saw fans protest against the Italian.
Scott Parker has replaced Ranieri on an interim basis and the former Chelsea midfielder will take charge for the first time against his former club.
Parker, who had been working as Ranieri’s assistant, goes into his first managerial job boosted by advice from former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.
The 38-year-old has been inundated with good-luck messages, including a text from Ferguson.
“I had some amazing text messages. Sir Alex text me late last night, which was pretty incredible,” said Parker, who inherits a side that lost seven of their last eight league games under Ranieri.
“To think he spent the time to write a long, detailed message giving me some advice on how he sees things was truly inspirational. I know it sounds a big comment but it’s the truth.”