LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri said his players were showing the strain of competing in the Europa League after they struggled for 45 minutes against Watford on Sunday before winning 3-0 to boost their chances of a top-four Premier League finish.
Chelsea drew 1-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday, leaving them little time to prepare for the visit of FA Cup finalists Watford.
“I think that in the first half we were in trouble because we were tired physically and mentally. Then in the second half they lowered their intensity so we took control of the match,” Sarri told reporters.
“We were lucky of course because we scored after two minutes and after the first goal probably we improved mentally and were able to play very well for 30, 35 minutes.”
Chelsea were booed off by many of their fans at halftime with Watford having dominated the opening period.
But goals from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and David Luiz early in the second half, both set up by Eden Hazard, were followed by Argentine Gonzalo Higuain’s strike in the 75th minute.
“It is not easy to play after 60 hours,” Sarri said referring to the midweek Europa League trip to Germany.
Sunday’s win, combined with Manchester United’s earlier 1-1 draw at already relegated Huddersfield Town and Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-0 loss at Bournemouth on Saturday, boosted Chelsea’s chances of returning to the Champions League next season.
They moved up to third place above Spurs, who they lead by a point, and extended their advantage to five points over fifth-placed Arsenal, who were playing at home to Brighton & Hove Albion in Sunday’s late game.
Chelsea visit Leicester City in their final league game of the season next Sunday.
A return to Europe’s top club competition - a bare minimum for Italian coach Sarri in his first season in charge - had looked in jeopardy as recently as February after a 6-0 thumping by Manchester City, a third defeat in four league games.
But Chelsea have now lost only twice in 11 matches while Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal have all stumbled.
Sarri conceded he had made an error on Sunday by not resting France midfielder N’Golo Kante, who left the field early in the first half with a hamstring injury.
“I think I made a mistake because today probably he had to rest. Sometimes it is very difficult to put on the bench a player (who is) so important like Kante, Hazard. I think it is very difficult to recover him for the next two matches.”
“But we want to play in the (Europa League) final, so he is lucky,” Sarri said ahead of a possible showdown with London rivals Arsenal who hold a 3-1 first-leg lead over Valencia.
Reporting by William Schomberg; Editing by Ken Ferris