Sarri says Chelsea were nervous; Kante praised but must improve

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LONDON — Chelsea got the win against Fulham to keep them among the chasing pack at the top of the Premier League table, but Maurizio Sarri knows his team must improve drastically to become genuine title contenders.

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An early Pedro goal set Chelsea on their way against their neighbors in west London, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek struck late on to seal the 2-0 win after Fulham had fought their way back into the game.

Speaking after the game Sarri acknowledged that Chelsea weren’t at their best and his players were a little nervous after their 3-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.

“I think that today it was really very important to get a result,” Sarri said. “We started very well, then after the 1-0 I think the players on the pitch had a very good level of application, attention but without trying to kill the match. We needed to kill the match before. I think today we were a little bit tense. Of course it wasn’t easy, the days after Tottenham for me and the players. We have talked too much about that match. We lost a match after three-and-a-half months. It can happen. Today it was important to react.”

Ahead of their massive clash with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge next Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) one of the main areas Sarri has talked about is improving his central midfield duo of Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.

The latter won the ball and set up Pedro for Chelsea’s opener and had a superb game overall against Fulham. After Sarri recently criticized Kante as he’s played him out of position in a more attacking central midfield role rather than as a holder, he praised the French star for his display on Sunday. But once again he said he must improve tactically.

“I think he played very well, he defended very well,” Sarri said. “He needs to improve a little more from the tactical point of view but it is natural. In the national team he usually plays with two midfielders. In the last season sometimes with two players, sometimes with three midfielders but in the central position. I think it is normal that he needs to improve.”

Although Sarri admitted Kante was better at getting in and around Jorginho — the man who has replaced him in the lone holding position in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation — on Sunday, he reaffirmed his belief that Kante still needs to work hard to make the partnership work.

“Today was better, because when the ball was on the other side of the pitch I remember only one mistake in the first half,” Sarri explained. “With the ball on the other side he has to stay very close to Jorginho. Otherwise for us it is a big problem because Jorginho is able to cut passes to the opponents but he is not really very good in the defensive phase with open spaces. We need Kante very close to him.”

Chelsea remain seven points off leaders Manchester City heading into a busy few weeks, but they’re in the top four and responded with a solid enough win against Fulham on Sunday. It was hardly vintage stuff from Sarri’s men in a game they were expected to win, but Kante’s display was a huge positive.

The fact his side were “tense” and “nervous” does suggest that they are still a little fragile despite losing just once so far this season in all competitions. That doesn’t exactly send out a positive message ahead of their biggest test of the season when Man City roll into town next week.