Maurizio Sarri and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer face date with destiny in FA Cup
More at stake for the managers than their respective clubs, Chelsea and Manchester United
It was an anti-climactic conclusion for a man who shaped the most famous ending in Manchester United’s history. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 366th and last United appearance came in the 2007 FA Cup final. A substitute who had scored the injury-time decider in the 1999 Uefa Champions League final was summoned in the 112th minute. Four minutes later, Didier Drogba struck the game’s only goal for Chelsea. It is one of history’s curiosities that the winning manager was Jose Mourinho, both Solskjaer’s predecessor and his antithesis now.
A dozen years later, the Norwegian’s wait for a 13th major trophy at Old Trafford could be ended. Once again, Chelsea stand in his way, even if the context has changed. In 2007, Solskjaer had helped United reclaim the Premier League title. Chelsea were runners-up, Champions League semi-finalists and winners of both domestic cups. If they were competing from a position of strength then, now perhaps rivals for fourth place are meeting in a place of weakness.
The increasingly beleaguered Maurizio Sarri has evidence that winning the FA Cup does not necessarily guarantee prolonged employment at Stamford Bridge: Antonio Conte’s final game produced a repeat of that 2007 scoreline, a 1-0 Chelsea win at Wembley. A fifth defeat in 10 games would put Sarri’s position under still greater threat.
United’s form has been altogether superior. Yet they have a wretched recent record both at Stamford Bridge – where they have not tasted victory in nine attempts – and against Chelsea in the FA Cup, with the Londoners winning their last four ties, while their first loss in 12 games since Mourinho’s sacking came at a cost. The first-half injuries to Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard that handed Paris Saint-Germain the initiative on Tuesday have ruled both out.
While the Frenchman scored twice in their entertaining, error-strewn 2-2 draw in October, the Englishman may be the greater loss. He has excelled as the most advanced midfielder in the 4-4-2 diamond midfield formation Solskjaer has adopted away at Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal and, given the success sides have had when they have deployed a lively attacker to man-mark Jorginho, was surely pencilled in for the same role.
For managers of out-of-form and in-form sides, this promises to be a defining spell. Sarri needs more evidence than a 2-1 win over Malmo supplied that he can draw a response to the 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City. Perhaps his assistant Gianfranco Zola did not help by suggesting the Chelsea team of his era would not have finished that game with 11 men; they would have supplied proof, however misguided, that they were hurting.
This side may reflect neither club’s past nor their manager. Sarri may insist that Chelsea are not playing Sarri-ball – arguably Napoli still show more of his philosophy – but the predictability of his selections and the rigidity of his tactics has rendered it easier to set up against them. With City and Spurs also in their next four matches, Sarri faces a test against the best, and he has lost four of his last five games against the top six.
Solskjaer, meanwhile, has had his first setback and his first reality check. A caretaker’s candidacy bears particular scrutiny when something goes wrong. If galvanising his players should be something an innate optimist is capable of doing, finding a strategy without two of his talismen may be harder.
The fixture list has handed him a trilogy and a double-header where his credentials can be examined against those of more garlanded managers: PSG, Chelsea and Liverpool now, PSG and Arsenal in March. They will offer more of an indication if he is an elite manager or simply an endearing antidote to the sour Mourinho.
For each, there is another element of strategising: how strong do they go when other competitions take precedence but this, with only City of the superpowers left, looks very winnable? Sarri has been able to field weakened teams thus far. Solskjaer allowed Alexis Sanchez a start and rested David de Gea in what was otherwise largely a first-choice side at Arsenal but has said teenagers Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong could feature on Monday. With more at stake for the managers than their respective clubs, decisions could have consequences for coaches whose careers have been on different trajectories recently.
Updated: February 18, 2019 09:30 AM