Chelsea's Sarri: I could have benched Kepa for rest of season

LONDON -- Maurizio Sarri revealed he considered dropping Kepa Arrizabalaga for the rest of the season before restoring the Spain international to the Chelsea team for Sunday's hard-earned 2-1 win over Fulham.

Kepa, brought back into the starting XI exactly a week after refusing to be substituted in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, made key saves from Aleksandar Mitrovic in each half as Chelsea withstood sustained spells of Fulham pressure to maintain their top-four challenge.

- Chelsea ratings: Kepa 8/10 in return to starting XI

Goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Jorginho were enough to secure Chelsea three points at Craven Cottage despite Calum Chambers' 27th-minute strike, and after the match, Sarri highlighted Kepa's performance as proof that he was right not to "kill" his £71.5 million goalkeeper for defying him at Wembley.

"It was a normal decision [to bring him back], I think," Sarri said. "Kepa made a big mistake. He paid for it with the club and the team. Now the situation is closed. There was only one other way: to put him out of the squad for the rest of the season. But Kepa is a man and understood, and reacted very well.

"I can kill him, but I think that [bringing him back] was right. I spoke with him during this week and he understood. His behaviour during the week was really very good. His reaction was really very good."

Asked if he could have left Kepa on the sidelines for the remainder of the season, Sarri replied: "Considering the man, no -- because I know him very well.

"I am sure that it was only a misunderstanding at the beginning, a big mistake at the end of the situation. But, with another man, yes of course. I could have done it in another way. With him, I know him very well and know very well it wasn't the right solution.

"I know very well the man. He is very clever, with a very good mentality. He made a mistake and [we had] a misunderstanding. Now is enough. But now I know very well that [Willy] Caballero is a very good goalkeeper and [an] important man for our group and our dressing room, so I have to find space for him."

Another man who found a measure of redemption at Craven Cottage was Jorginho, who netted the game's decisive goal -- and his first for Chelsea since the opening day of the season -- after this week pledging to win over the supporters who have criticised him.

"I'm very, very happy for him because he scored, but my opinion about Jorginho is the same," Sarri added. "He's a very great player, one of the most important in Europe in that position. Of course, for him, it's not easy a first season in this football with a new team.

"He was really very tired in the last part of the match, and we were lucky that [Mateo] Kovacic could come on and do really very well. In that position, we have some problems. We are trying in training with Kovacic there. The answer from him was really very good."

Chelsea's win lifts them to within one point of Arsenal in fifth, two points behind Manchester United in fourth and five points off Tottenham in third with a game in hand, giving fresh life to a Champions League qualification charge that looked in danger of being utterly derailed in the first two months of 2019.

"We had a great opportunity, I think," Sarri said. "Because we were five points from the top four, but now we are only two points off. It's not easy. We have to fight until the last minute of the last match [against Tottenham]. We are fighting. In the last four matches, we did well.

"We won 3-0 in the Europa League. It was really very important for us, the [Carabao Cup] final, losing on penalties but, after the last match against City in Manchester when we lost 6-0, we played at the same level as them. That was very important for our confidence.

"Then we won against Tottenham and won [against Fulham]. I think that a minimum of consistency has arrived, but we have to continue."