The FA Cup’s new Test Match format brings a 4-day carnival of glorious footie. The gods have saved the highlight of this weekend’s extravaganza til last, with a Monday night meeting between the second and third-favourites for the pot.
In a repeat of last year’s final, Manchester United return to London to take on holders Chelsea, in a game that feels like a crossroads for both clubs.
True, for both these behemoths, FA Cup victory hasn’t been enough to save the gaffer’s head in recent years. With both sets of fans and owners expecting Champions League miracles as a bare minimum, Aloysius van Gaal and Tony Conte each felt the chop just moments after Wembley glory.
So sure, calling this one a crunch match for Maurizio Sarri in the blue dugout or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the red corner would be the mootests of moot points. But just you try and stop me pal.
Exhilarating stuff this Sarriball malarkey, isn’t it? Tonked 4-0 away to Bournemouth, Chelsea returned to Stamford Bridge with pure vengeance on their minds, with poor old Huddersfield feeling the brunt of their bloodlust in a merciless 5-0 massacre. But no sooner had honour been restored in the ranks than another away loss at the Etihad, the 6-0 disgrace their worst in 28 years.
So will the Blues feel humiliated enough to show up for this one with nothing but a 7-0 show of might on their minds? Or was that meant to happen against Malmo on Thursday night?
In proper European fitba, Solskjaer woke up on Wednesday morning with the box-fresh stink of defeat under his nose. It was always going to happen at some point, but losing at home in his first Champions League game was horrendous timing for the toddler-masked hitman.
For the first time in the interim manager’s tenure, the Give-Him-The-Job-Now crowd are being drowned out by the Maybe-He’s-Actually-Crap mob. Just goes to show, no matter how much he’s smiling, Ole’s doomed to spend the rest of the season with his head on the chopping block.
On that topic, I promised myself I wouldn’t mention a certain cuddly South American whizzkid, but it’s impossible to ignore how well Spurs’ gameplan worked in their own Champions League test this week…
On The Tactics Board
While Solskjaer’s motivational magic is never in doubt, he’ll do his classroom credentials no harm at all by outfoxing the tactical guru in the opposite dugout.
Whilst battering the league’s doss outfits is all well and good, his future employment depends on how he handles the big occasions and he botched it Tuesday night.
The Norwegian remains in credit thus far having bested both Spurs and Arsenal away from home before last week’s misstep against the French champions. With games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Man City, PSG and Chelsea x2 coming up, he will surely need to win at least half to justify a longer tenure.
Fortunately for him, Sarri hasn’t changed his gameplan since 2015, and four losses already this year prove that some coaches are getting wise to the Italian’s methods.
Knocks to both Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are a major headache, however, as much of Chelsea’s recent vulnerability has been exposed by tricksy wingers exploiting the space outside their narrow full-backs.
With Alexis Sanchez, who was back to his cack-footed worst against PSG, also struggling for fitness, United may be forced into a change of shape with Lukaku and Rashford being supported by Mata at the tip of a narrow midfield diamond.
Speaking of South American weak links brings us neatly on to the £56 million question: Jorginho. Apart from scooping annoyingly high through-balls at little Will.i.an and Hazard, what does he actually do?
A Question From Our Spiritual Leader
“N’Golo Kante has won 2 Prems, a World Cup and the hearts of at least 2 nations in the past 3 years, so why the ever-flipping heck would you play him out of position in favour of some fancy-pants fake Brazilian who knows something or other to do with triangles?” is what Lawro would probably say.
N’Golo’s goal from the 2017 quarter-final might explain it, Mark:
That said, you can't help but feel Sarri would be getting an easier ride from fans if he, you know, played the world's best holding midfielder in his actual position. What with them shipping an absolute shedload of late and Jorginho offering all the tenacity of a Michael Bublé single, and all.
Of course, he needs time to implement his grand vision, look at Pep's debut season in Manchester, but the cig-chomping Italian only has so much goodwill left in the tank as he attempts to prove he's a tactical visionary rather than tinkering twit.
Crazy fact alert: Chelsea have 50 players out on loan. Fifty! And that doesn’t include Danny Drinkwater. How long before the police put out a missing persons appeal for him?
Signing his old mate Gonzo Higuain until the end of the season was a tentative show of faith in prof. Sarri, but if Roman Abramovic decides he’s a busted flush he’s got plenty of options if he decides his squad needs a re-education in the summer.
Score To Settle
Twice a winner of this competition as a player, Chelsea were the club that denied Solskjaer the perfect swansong to his storied career. The gits.
The striker’s 8-minute cameo at the end of the 2007 FA Cup final was to be his last ever game of professional football as Didier Drogba stabbed home a late winner deep into extra time.
You best believe it. Last year’s final was decided by a penalty elegantly conceded by Big Philip Jones, who displayed all the grace of a horny walrus to bring down Hazard with a delicate no-look arse-lunge.
Re-live the magic and remember why most right thinking United fans hurled their dinner at the wall upon hearing news of Jones' new four year contract: