The fast-moving world of football has managed to overtake what promised to be an FA Cup treat at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. When the draw was made, Chelsea’s pairing with Manchester United was the obvious fifth-round highlight, but that was before both clubs suffered chastening setbacks.
Chelsea suffered their heaviest defeat of the Premier League era at the hands of Manchester City last Sunday, a 6-0 thrashing that left Maurizio Sarri in a state of shock. It is highly unlikely that Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United will be quite so ruthless and relentless, though with a Carabao Cup final against City due at the end of the month one could readily understand Sarri and his players feeling apprehensive about the possibility of setting up another meeting in a different competition.
United will feel a little deflated, too, after the first setback under Solskjær’s temporary charge. While there is no disgrace to losing to a team as powerful and lavishly funded as Paris Saint-Germain, the illusion of invincibility has gone, the confidence will have taken a hit, and it remains to be seen how good Solskjær is at restoring self-belief and pride in his players.
The expected exit from the Champions League may prove something of a blessing if it streamlines the fixture list and enables Solskjær to concentrate on his core task of securing a top-four finish, and doubtless there are some at United who feel just as hard-headed about the FA Cup.
Reaching the final would be tremendous for Solskjær personally and would enable the club and its supporters to finish a difficult season on a high, though if the United hierarchy could make a choice between tangible silverware and Champions League football next season they would take a top-four finish every time.
So, too, would Chelsea. Were United to secure fourth place Chelsea would most likely be the ones to miss out. For a second successive season. With a new manager imported from Italy, not a caretaker whistled up from Norway. The stakes are high between Chelsea and United at the moment, but in the league rather than the Cup.
Chelsea are in one final but in danger of missing out on the Champions League place they brought Sarri in to secure. United are the club who in effect sacked a manager on the day he won the FA Cup but there can be little doubt Chelsea would view Sarri as similarly disposable should he fail in his primary objective in the league.
Not that Chelsea or anyone else are likely to contemplate winning the FA Cup while Manchester City are still in it, but the days are long gone when a Wembley triumph would make up for a disappointing league campaign. At the top end, the league just is not like that any more, and neither, unfortunately for traditionalists, is the FA Cup.
At least Chelsea are not going into the FA Cup tie on the back of a demoralising defeat, having restored a little pride with their victory against Malmö in Sweden. Sarri’s comment after the 2-1 win was revealing: he said he was happy that his players performed with confidence because he knew that would not be easy after the City drubbing.
Top-six teams are supposed to hand out occasional pastings to the sides below them in the table, not to each other, and the lack of resolve Chelsea displayed at the Etihad was bound to be a matter of concern for a coach attempting to return to the elite. United were not short of motivation against PSG, they were just picked apart by opponents with better passing and movement and, in Kylian Mbappé, the sort of counterattack threat that is almost impossible to resist.
It was United’s own counterattacking ability that almost produced a win at Stamford Bridge in the league fixture last October, the one where Ross Barkley’s equaliser in the sixth minute of added time prompted celebrations on the Chelsea bench that upset Mourinho.
That was arguably one of United’s most impressive displays under Mourinho, a combination of the expected defensive discipline with a more surprising willingness to go for all three points. Solskjær’s United, though, have come up against one top-six opponent in the league, when Marcus Rashford’s goal and David de Gea’s goalkeeping accounted for Tottenham at Wembley last month, though they were impressive in removing Arsenal in the last round of the Cup.
Given that the future of both managers could hinge on results against top-six opponents this season, David Luiz’s comments about the players buying into Sarri’s philosophy were interesting. He said the squad and manager had meetings all the time, which was unsurprising, but argued Manchester City were the best team in the world because they had worked under the same manager for three seasons. Liverpool are enjoying success for the same reason, the Chelsea defender believes.
“We lost a few matches because it is part of the process,” he said. “The teams that are at the top of the table now are ones with managers who have been there for three years or more and there is a big difference when you have already understood everything, it is much easier to play football.”
He suggests, perhaps optimistically, that Chelsea might get close to City’s level after another year or two with Sarri. He could be right, but the optimism comes in expecting a Chelsea manager to last that long.
United are in a similar position, having tried four different managers in the six years since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. As a quick fix, Solskjær has been marvellous, but United are still going to need a lot of convincing that he is the right long-term solution.