Ruben Loftus-Cheek seals controversial late win for Chelsea over Cardiff

Neil Warnock stood in the centre circle with his hands on his hips, glaring at the officials who had just made the sort of mistake that makes it hard for anyone to argue about the merits of introducing VAR in the Premier League next season. César Azpilicueta was a yard offside when he headed in Chelsea’s equaliser six minutes from time, turning this chaotic game on its head and paving the way for a dramatic finish that saw Maurizio Sarri’s side pilfer a victory that was laced with good fortune and left Warnock incandescent with rage.

The Cardiff manager’s reputation precedes him, and railing at referees has long been one of his favourite pastimes, yet even by his standards this was at the upper end of the scale. By the time the final whistle blew, Warnock’s blood was boiling. Sarri got short shrift as he held out a hand, Warnock then screamed into the face of David Luiz, the Chelsea defender, in frustration more than anything else, and the stand off with Craig Pawson and the referee’s two assistants was one of those occasions when looks could kill.

A sense of injustice consumed the Cardiff manager and his players at the end of a wild afternoon. Victory would have taken them to within three points of safety, and with less than 10 minutes remaining that was firmly within their grasp. Yet everything changed in the blink of an eye, first through Azpilicueta’s hugely controversial goal and then, with the game in the first minute of injury-time, via a header from Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the Chelsea substitute. “Soul destroying,” said Warnock afterwards.

Chelsea, make no mistake, got out of jail here, especially their manager. Sarri’s side were desperately poor for so much of this game and the mood among the travelling supporters was mutinous. “We want Sarri out” reverberated loud and clear time and again. “Fuck Sarri-ball” was chanted as early as the 33rd minute and that was swiftly followed by “Super Frank Lampard”.

There was plenty more where that came from and it is no exaggeration to say that before Azpilicueta scored, it felt as though Sarri could be on the brink of being sacked. His decision to rest Eden Hazard, who was brought on shortly after Victor Camarasa had put Cardiff ahead with a lovely first-time volley at the start of the second half, felt like a strange one to say the least and it was another disappointing afternoon for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who never got off the bench.

Few of those who did start the game emerged with any credit and for long periods it was hard to see what Chelsea were trying to do. There was no real pattern to their play, certainly no tempo to it, and it was nigh on impossible to see where a goal was going to come from. Indeed, Chelsea had registered only one short on target before Azpilicueta scored.

Everything felt so slow and pedestrian, in particular in midfield. Jorginho, whose only notable contribution was to pick up a yellow card for a cynical foul on Josh Murphy, was withdrawn and replaced by Loftus-Cheek, and it is still hard to recognise what Mateo Kovacic brings to this Chelsea team. The way things are going, similar questions will soon be asked of Gonzalo Higuaín.

The patience of the Chelsea fans was stretched to breaking point after Camarasa scored. Harry Arter, who must have covered close to every blade of grass in the centre of the Cardiff midfield, whipped a low cross into the Chelsea area. Stood about 16 yards out, Camarasa connected beautifully with a first-time volley that was still rising as it flew past Kepa Arrizabalaga. It was the Spaniard’s fifth league goal of the season and provided the cue for the Chelsea supporters to call for Sarri to be dismissed.

Cardiff felt that they should have had a penalty shortly after that breakthrough. Antonio Rüdiger had hold of Sean Morrison’s arm, but Pawson dismissed the home appeals, just as he did in the first half, when the Cardiff captain appeared to have his shirt pulled by Marcos Alonso. There had also been an earlier incident in the Cardiff penalty area, when Aron Gunnarsson looked to be holding Rüdiger. Once again, Pawson was unmoved.

The major talking point, though, came late. Willian’s corner was flicked on at the near post by Alonso for Azpilicueta, stood inside the six yard-box and clearly offside, to head past Neil Etheridge. Somehow, the goal was allowed to stand – Eddie Smart, the assistant referee at that end of the pitch is believed to have had his view blocked by Willian – and Chelsea were not finished there. Another Willian cross, this time to the back post, was met by Loftus-Cheek, who nipped in front of Lee Peltier to break Cardiff hearts.

Replays showed that César Azpilicueta was in an offside position when scoring the equaliser for Chelsea.
Replays showed that César Azpilicueta was in an offside position when scoring the equaliser for Chelsea. Photograph: Sky Sports
Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea celebrates with Olivier Giroud after scoring the winner.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek of Chelsea celebrates with Olivier Giroud after scoring the winner. Photograph: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images