Chelsea will not stand for much more of this. Maurizio Sarri, isolated and alone, had shuffled around his technical area as his team were outmuscled, out-manoeuvred and out-classed by Manchester United to depart the FA Cup with the kind of whimper that has become far too commonplace over recent weeks. The Italian’s eyes never left the pitch, but he could not have escaped the full repertoire of chants, whipped up by the fans in the Matthew Harding Stand where faith in the current regime appears wrecked beyond repair, which damned their own head coach. The humiliation was brutal.
The chorus veered from “You don’t know what you’re doing” at the predictability of the substitutions, via an industrial and scathing assessment of Sarri-ball, a style this team have hardly ever mustered and clearly never mastered, to bellowed praise of Frank Lampard. Chelsea’s record goalscorer has other priorities at present, his focus solely on securing Derby’s elevation from the Championship, but his candidacy has arguably been enhanced by the startling success being enjoyed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since he returned to Old Trafford in December. United stride on into a quarter-final at Wolverhampton. Sarri’s own future appears distinctly less certain.
Up in the west stand, Roman Abramovich’s box remained dark and empty, with the owner presumably oblivious to the cries of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” that were initiated in the away end but swiftly echoed around the arena’s four sides. The oligarch’s absence is adding to the sense this is a club that is rudderless at present. In the recent ruthless past, he might already have acted. Perhaps after the embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth at the end of January or, more probably, the abject capitulation to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Victories over Huddersfield and Malmo only ever secured temporary respite. There is too much wrong with this set-up, from the stubbornness of a coach unwilling to bend his philosophy, once considered a strength, to suit personnel to players whose confidence is either shattered or their commitment questionable.
John Terry was here and he must have winced at the sight of Chelsea wilting in the face of United’s pace, power and sheer aggression. David Luiz and Marcos Alonso squabbled through the aftermath of the visitors’ first goal, while too many home players were left waving their arms in baffled submission as they digested the loss of the second goal.
As admirable as Solskjaer’s revived team were, that traumatic evening against Paris St-Germain apparently forgotten, the holders had made it easy for them. Just as they have for far too many opponents of late.
Sarri has the return leg with Malmo to come on Thursday, then a Carabao Cup final against City and a visit from Tottenham, all within the next eight days. The thought of that occasion at Wembley must fill him with dread given how easily his players are pulled out of shape at present though, given the mutinous mood in these parts, he could yet be spared involvement.
“I can understand the situation and our fans, because the result wasn’t really good,” Sarri said. “We are out of the FA Cup, so I can understand. But I am worried about our results. We were unlucky. In the first half, we played better than the opponent and, at the end of the first half, it was 2-0 to them, so we played confused football in the second half. But, in the first half, we played well. We need, of course, more aggression, more determination.”
A change of manager had the desired effect at United. It now seems likely that the powers at Stamford Bridge will make a similar move and hope for similar results.