Pogba, Herrera star as Manchester United knock Chelsea out of FA Cup
Chelsea are nearing a huge collapse and it is indeed becoming a familiar sight for Chelsea fans. The clamor around the football club, for quite some time now, is that Maurizio Sarri cannot simply plough on like this – neither with his tactics, nor his substitutions. And tonight, there was a collective rage and disappointment in the crowd over Chelsea’s performance, and even more so, in the final exchanges over the substitutions.
Agreed, the board knew what they were appointing in Sarri and it is not in the regime’s nature to seek to force the manager to play a different way. But, it cannot simply be a case of blindly repeating the same approach, and then, when the same set of problems duly flare up, issuing the same exclamations of astonishment in public.
Now that they have lost 5 out of their last 10 matches in all competitions, the hierarchy is desperate to see signs of an ability to adapt from Sarri’s stubborn outlook, even if that threatens to push him away from his underlying principles en route.
One glaring difference between the two sides was the synchronization and administration in play. While the visitors did everything one could ask of them, Chelsea’s same old frailties were brutally exposed yet again. If there was one thing the club’s followers were wary about before the start, it was the Chelsea backline. And, the performance tonight was no different. Both the goals were a residue of defensive errors and a terrible lack of communication.
Sarri could have been excused if the players he has been starting match after match had been putting up a plucky fight on a regular basis. But the latest performances bring to sharp focus they are bereft of confidence and lacking coordination amongst themselves. So, what is the point in believing in someone who doesn’t quite have the required self-belief?
A stark contrast, however, was seen in the opposition dressing room. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, starting Sergio Romero in goal tonight, drew flak from most quarters. But, the decision proved to be a masterstroke, being vindicated with a clean sheet, and, in the process, Manchester United’s first win at Stamford Bridge since 2012. To put it into a larger context, this shows the character of a team on the ascendancy.
Agreed there were fleeting moments when the Argentine goalkeeper seemed troubled, but had he not pulled out the double save following David Luiz’s free-kick, the match could have taken a completely different complexion. This came before a period of play when Chelsea gained momentum, boasted possession and incision, and, most importantly for Chelsea, when Eden Hazard’s twisting of hips and dexterous ball manipulations seemed to light up Stamford Bridge.
An aspect, which eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides, was the midfield – where Chelsea usually tend to dominate. The workaholic trio of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and former Chelsea man, Juan Mata, pulled the strings and eventually went on to seize an iron grip on the midfield. While Paul Pogba created a goal and scored one himself, Herrera made more tackles (6) and made more interceptions (5) than any other player tonight.
Just when Chelsea seemed to get to grips with United’s 4-3-1-2, against the run of play, the visitors broke the deadlock. Not that the run of play and a wealth of possession was doing Chelsea any good.
Paul Pogba proficiently got around Rudiger on the Chelsea left to deliver an inch-perfect cross for an unmarked Herrera to head home from close range. The Spaniard, however, was aided by the lack of coordination between David Luiz and the lackluster Alonso. The brief period when Chelsea were on top showed signs as if Sarri has finally been able to drum home in Alonso his long lost sense of positioning. But, the goal seemed to bring back in memories of his daft showing of late.
Sadly, the second goal too was a case in point. From what had turned out to be just a routine throw-in, Pogba played Rashford free behind the upfield and absent Marcos Alonso, who then dispatched a cross, aided by Luiz’s decision not to attack the ball, for Pogba to double the lead from close quarters. One might argue Kepa could have done better to keep out the header, but it wasn’t to be and this means the Frenchman has been directly involved in 15 goals since Ole took charge.
As was the scenario at the Etihad Stadium confronting Raheem Sterling, Azpilicueta, who was later to be substituted for Zappacosta, was finding it increasingly difficult to cope up with Marcus Rashford’s pace and movement. His link-up play with Paul Pogba particularly must have left Ole drooling, bearing in mind the absence of Martial and Lingard, now that they have to face Liverpool down at home in what will potentially be a season-defining game.
Ashley Young, too, after getting sanctioned early on, had a great game. He was up against the bewitching Eden Hazard, but he beautifully negated the Belgium’s threat, closing him down with minimal regard for personal space. Contrastingly, while the hosts seemed vulnerable to the counterattack, United defended in numbers and made sure any Chelsea player streaming forward was squared up by at least two players in Red.
Chelsea might be complaining about the ricochets that did not fall their way or Nemanja Matic not shown a second yellow after the foul on Kante, but deep down, they ought to feel grateful for United’s inability to convert their superiority into the hard currency of goals.
The current FA Cup holders once again hogged the ball, but evidently lacked the penetration and penalty-area ruthlessness. They could not conjure up a single shot on target in the second half, and awarding them one star would be generous.