Callum Hudson-Odoi a star in the making at turbulent Chelsea
DUBLIN -- At times in the first half you could even sense the excitement from the Arsenal fans. Red shirts far outnumbered the Chelsea blue at the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday, but there is something so universally thrilling about watching a gifted youngster dominate established stars that few can avoid getting caught up in the moment.
Callum Hudson-Odoi felt no fear. That emotion instead belonged to Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin, backpedalling furiously towards his own goal time and again as he scrambled to contain a 17-year-old who moved at a different speed to everyone else on the pitch.
Working primarily in isolation against Bellerin, Hudson-Odoi won a penalty and created three other good chances for the wasteful Alvaro Morata in the first 45 minutes. He was also unlucky not to get on the scoresheet himself, racing clean through on to Jorginho's clipped pass only to be denied by an inspired Petr Cech.
As a spectacle it was reminiscent of Pablo Zabaleta being terrorised by a 17-year-old Raheem Sterling during Liverpool's 2-2 draw with Manchester City at Anfield in August 2012. For those Chelsea supporters who have championed Hudson-Odoi's case to play a first-team role this season it was an emphatic vindication, and after the match Maurizio Sarri indicated that they will get their wish.
Yet while Hudson-Odoi's rich talent offers hope for a bright Chelsea future, Sarri's most pressing task is to navigate the dysfunction that overshadows their present. He confirmed he will talk to Willian about the Brazilian's late return to preseason, admitting that he is "not happy" with the situation and finds the claim that passport issues were responsible for the delay strange.
Willian's misjudgement, by all accounts a genuine mistake, evoked unwanted memories of Diego Costa's self-imposed exile in Lagarto last summer as well as removing him from contention for the Dublin trip. It was particularly ominous in the context of a summer that has seen Manchester United and Barcelona express significant interest in signing him, though Chelsea as a club have no immediate concerns about his attitude.
Sarri has little scope to discipline Willian even if he is inclined to do so; with preseason almost at an end his other options on the wing are limited to Pedro Rodriguez, Hudson-Odoi and the newly recast Victor Moses. He will not get his wish to look Eden Hazard in the eye and gauge his commitment until this weekend, when the Belgian returns from his post-World Cup break.
Chelsea remain determined to keep Hazard from the clutches of Real Madrid, and every day that passes without a mega-offer or player agitation increases their confidence of achieving their aim. There is less bullishness about Thibaut Courtois, who has shown little interest in extending the contract that expires next summer, but all parties know a high-quality replacement goalkeeper must be secured before he is allowed to leave.
Sarri, like many a Chelsea head coach before him, was in no position to offer assurances on either front in Dublin and while he insists he is bored by transfer matters, it cannot be easy to lead amid such uncertainty. Antonio Conte was exasperated and eventually worn down by the feeling of strategic powerlessness; how his successor deals with it could be the difference between success and failure at Stamford Bridge.
On the pitch, Sarri's revolution is taking shape. Jorginho has single-handedly transformed the complexion of this Chelsea team, dictating possession from the base of midfield and organising the press. He is already the technical and tactical leader on the pitch, and the rest of the Premier League should be relieved that Pep Guardiola did not manage to bring him to City.
Arsenal exposed Sarri's need for N'Golo Kante, however, with Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan repeatedly drifting into the pockets of midfield space that the France international is so good at cutting off and driving at the Chelsea defence unchecked. He, like Hazard and Courtois, will not be available until next week and, peerless natural athlete though he is, it remains unclear how ready he will be to contribute from day one of the Premier League.
City will present an even sterner test in the Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday, as well as an intriguing duel of philosophies between Sarri and his good friend Guardiola. Having kept rotation to a minimum so far in preseason, the Italian confirmed in Dublin that the starting XI he picked against Arsenal is "very, very near" to the team that will face the Premier League champions.
That should mean another opportunity for Hudson-Odoi to bolster his rapidly growing reputation and further impress Sarri, who is clearly intrigued by his talent. Chelsea supporters will no doubt relish one more chance to be excited by what the future could be, before the frantic final days of the Premier League transfer window bring the concerns of the present crashing back into view.