Chelsea defender David Luiz has made an interesting statement about unsettled manager Maurizio Sarri ahead of their Europa League final against London rival Arsenal, while also talking other managers he worked under and the one he misses.
David Luiz was not surprised when Maurizio Sarri turned up at Chelsea and told him it might be best if he were on his way. “We had a conversation in the first week he arrived,” Luiz tells Sportsmail.
“He didn’t want me to stay and that was normal. I’d been injured for a long period. I was in the last year of my contract. I was 31 years old and everyone was saying, ‘No, not David’. Then, after three days he saw me training and said, ‘No, you are going to stay’.”
Luiz, a self-styled expert when it comes to changing people’s minds, went on to start in 36 of 38 Premier League games under Sarri. Only Jorginho and Cesar Azpilicueta started more. The Europa League final against Arsenal on Wednesday will be his 50th appearance of the campaign and he has played every minute in all but three. Not only did he secure the trust of Sarri but also a new two-year contract.
“I started my pre-season six months before when I was on my own and not playing because of my injury. I was trying to take care of myself and I did it. This season I will have played 49 or 50 games and I did not miss one training session. That means I took good care of myself,” adds Luiz.
At 32, Luiz has become one of the dressing-room leaders and a perfect foil for Sarri; bright, positive and ready to engage with his public when the manager is brooding and absorbed in the technicalities of his tactical thoughts. The Brazilian is aware of what has come to define the club under Roman Abramovich and his presence may be even more important as a new era begins now without club captain Gary Cahill and, probably, Eden Hazard.
“I want to play at a high level. I can say I want to play football until I’m 100, but I want to continue at a high level, so I have to look after myself, have discipline and work every single day. I want to play for Chelsea and try to win big titles. I have two more years on my contract, but maybe I can stay for five more. We don’t know,” says Luiz.
Luiz is close to 250 appearances for Chelsea across his two spells and, while there have been tough times, there have been some extreme highs, chief among them the Champions League win in Munich, against all the odds, seven years ago.
“I remember I was not able to play because of injury but I decided to play. On the night before the game, I was with Mr Abramovich in the hotel and he asked me how my leg was. I said, ‘I don’t want to talk about my leg, let’s talk about my heart and the title tomorrow’. He said, ‘Oh my God, no problem, we are going to win’. It was an incredible night for me because all the problems I had before this game passed and I was able to play 120 minutes and score a penalty, and this happened when we were 2-0 down (in the shootout). It was the greatest night of my life,” says Luiz.
“I learned a lot about how you can deal with pain and how your mind can control your body. I really came to understand many things that night. We had problems with suspensions and injuries. We were in Munich against Bayern. In footballing terms, Munich were the better side. They played a better semi-final and qualified to play the final there, in Munich. They prepared the party. They had great players like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery in the best moment of their lives.
“Things like that were against us, but we went there to try to win the title and we did it. It was about belief and trust in ourselves. The win against Napoli at home changed our minds. This was the key moment in this Champions League. We thought, ‘If we really want to do something, we can do it’. We looked at each other and thought, ‘Let’s try to do it’.”
Chelsea trailed 3-1 after the first leg of their last-16 tie in Naples but won the return leg 4-1 in extra time, with a winner from Branislav Ivanovic.
“This is the magic of football, the magic of life. Liverpool helped Tottenham to believe against Ajax. One day before they saw what Liverpool did with a comeback when they controlled Barcelona 100 per cent. Anybody can live a magic moment in life. You just have to find it,” says Luiz as he compares that glorious night to this season’s thrilling semi-finals when Liverpool recovered from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield and Tottenham refused to accept defeat at Ajax a day later.
Twelve months after Munich, Chelsea won the Europa League, beating Benfica in Amsterdam. Luiz’s emotions were muted after winning a final against friends at Benfica, a club he left when he first moved to Stamford Bridge in January 2011. This time in Baku he will savour the occasion, although he knows it will not be easy against an Arsenal team led by his former Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery.
“He is a specialist in this competition. They have the motivation to get into the Champions League, but we understand this is a final and a big title and we need to win it,” said Luiz. Luiz counts briskly through his Chelsea managers with the help of his fingers. ‘Seven?’ he asks. ‘Did I miss one?’ He didn’t.
“Carlo Ancelotti brought me here. Under Andre Villas-Boas I was playing every game. Under Roberto Di Matteo we won the Champions League and the FA Cup. With Rafa Benitez, we won the Europa League. With Jose Mourinho, we were in the semi-finals of the Champions League. With Antonio Conte, we won the Premier League. With Maurizio Sarri we have the possibility to win the Europa League.
“With all seven I played. So that means I understood something and was trying my best. And we need to be respectful and understand the history of every single one. To be the manager of Chelsea means they did something great. Every one of them had their style and way of football; their way to think football, to teach football. I tried to learn something from every single one.”
There is no will to criticise Conte, but he praises Sarri, who has revived his Chelsea career. “He is a great man. So humble. And he is a dreamer. His history in life is great. He came from the bank, he is intelligent and started to study football with teams in the lowest divisions. Not many coaches are prepared to do that. This has given him a real history. I love him and I’m so happy for him because we’re finishing the season so well,” said Luiz.
Many Chelsea supporters are less convinced. Some turned against Sarri’s style during a mid-season slump and there is lingering uncertainty about his future despite finishing third and reaching two cup finals. “It has been a year without consistency,” Luiz admitted.
“For the first three months, everyone was happy and excited, enjoying it a lot. Then our form dipped and the reaction from the fans is normal. They want to win every title, every game. This is a big club and a big club thinks like that. We don’t talk about our victories, we talk when we lose. The fans want to be happy, they want to win games and titles. They want to go to their jobs and play around with their friends and say, ‘Yesterday, we won’.” Sarri is a great man. I love him, so humble, and he is a dreamer”