It was a beating so severe, one wondered if Maurizio Sarri would be fired before Chelsea’s next match.
The Italian is still on the sidelines, though the unrest around Stamford Bridge continues as the Pensioners lurch from match to match in terms of consistency. But amid all the noise, Sarri has a chance to win his first piece of silverware in a lengthy coaching career Sunday when Chelsea try to prevent Manchester City from repeating as Carabao Cup champions at Wembley Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
It was one of the most visceral beatdowns of a high-profile side in recent memory, recalling Manchester United’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in 2011 and City’s 5-1 thumping of Spurs at Wembley in 2014. But the utter ruthlessness of Manchester City’s 6-0 dismantling of Chelsea at the Etihad a fortnight ago — the champions were four goals clear before the clock reached 30 minutes — prompted an equally visceral reaction from the Chelsea fan base.
While the Blues are in sixth place in the Premier League, it has been the slavish devotion of Sarri to his 4-3-3 system, his insistence of playing Jorginho essentially on an island instead of working in tandem with N’Golo Kante as a push-pull tandem in the midfield, his at times moving Eden Hazard into a false No. 9 role, it all came to a head during the week after that punishing defeat.
Some of the goodwill that was built up with Chelsea’s first-leg Europa League victory at Malmo was quickly wiped away with Monday’s 2-0 FA Cup home loss to Manchester United — one of the teams they are fighting for fourth place and the final Champions League spot. It was again a case of Chelsea playing too slowly and holding possession for possession’s sake and getting severely outclassed as Paul Pogba put on a clinic for those in attendance at Stamford Bridge in the first 45 minutes with a goal and an assist.
It became too much to bear in the second 45 when Sarri continued his like-for-like substitution patterns — Pedro for Willian, Ross Barkley for Mateo Kovacic and perhaps the most galling one, swapping out right back and talisman Cesar Azpilicueta for Davide Zappacosta down two with eight minutes remaining. The crowd responded with an expletive-laden chant regarding “Sarri-ball” as the Blues absorbed a third embarrassing shutout loss in their last six matches in all competitions.
What is scary for Sarri and Chelsea is there is a very real chance a fourth such defeat could take place at Wembley. First-choice keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga is likely going to be sidelined with a hamstring injury, which would thrust Willy Caballero between the sticks. And for those with a short memory, his performances for Argentina during the World Cup last summer do not inspire much confidence.
Barkley’s disastrous performance against City — his back pass without realising Sergio Aguero was waiting to pounce directly contributed to one of those four goals — may result in him being on the bench for Kovacic. Gonzalo Higuain’s lone goals since his arrival came in Chelsea’s rout of last-place Huddersfield Town, and with Olivier Giroud in form after scoring in both legs against Malmo, the World Cup winner and savvy veteran striker could get the call over the Argentine.
Though Chelsea’s recent form has given supporters agita, this is still a side that dealt Manchester City one of their four losses in league play. Sarri, however, thinks the ideal his team should be chasing is the first half of its first-leg semifinal versus Tottenham Hotspur in this tournament. Though the Blues were not rewarded in that specific match, the Italian gaffer thinks this the in-between where his team should be when compared to their first two matches versus City.
“We were lucky in the first match because we were in trouble in the first half. We scored in the last minute of the first half, and then the match changed,” he explained the club’s official website. “We were unlucky in the second match, because we started very well for five minutes then we conceded a stupid goal and we were unable to react. It was a disaster.
“The truth is in the middle. The 2-0 two months ago is not true; the 6-0 two weeks ago is not true. For us in this match it’s very important to stay in the match for a long time, and then we will be able to do something.”
In his first full season with Chelsea, Barkley offered an impassioned defence of Sarri’s methods, with the England international tipping his side for bigger and better things once they get fully acclimated to Sarri’s demanding style.
“He [Sarri] tries to improve every player. Throughout his career, you can see at Napoli how well he did with the players he had, how well he improved them,” Barkley told The Telegraph. “You can see on the training pitch a lot of things improving in each individual. We went through a bit of an up and down spell in the last couple of weeks, but we’re confident we’ll come through it and achieve success.”
As the referendums roil Chelsea on a seemingly weekly basis, Manchester City appear to be hitting that fifth gear that comes with the chance at the first of four potential trophies this season. The Cityzens are trying to become the first holders to repeat since Manchester United in 2010. They are also seeking to lift the League Cup trophy for the sixth time, which would move them ahead of United, Chelsea, and Aston Villa for second behind Liverpool’s eight.
While City manager Pep Guardiola has made no bones about wanting this trophy and daring his players to dream big in trying to collect all four trophies — three domestic and the Champions League — he was also quick to dismiss his team’s chances about doing so until he claims the first one.
“How many times in England one team wins four titles in one season? Don’t put that pressure on our shoulders because we don’t deserve it,” he said according to The Times. “Sir Alex Ferguson’s incredible United? He never did it. Liverpool, 1980s, how many Champions Leagues they have in their pockets? They didn’t do it. So don’t put the pressure on one team in February or November or December. You have to win four titles — it’s impossible.”
City have won five on the bounce in all competitions, including a wild 3-2 victory at Schalke midweek in their first-leg tie in the Champions League round of 16. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling rallied the 10-man Cityzens with goals in the final five minutes, allowing Guardiola’s team to return home for the second leg with three vital away goals.
Given the absolute hiding City administered a fortnight ago, one would imagine Guardiola would try to keep things as close to identical as possible. There will be at least one change, though, as centre back John Stones is unlikely to play due to a groin injury. Nicolas Otamendi is expected to fill that spot with Vincent Kompany also unavailable due to injury.
Guardiola is expected to keep his midfield trio of Fernandinho flanked by David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, with Aguero again leading the line with Sterling and Bernardo Silva up front with him. Aguero has made tormenting Chelsea a cottage industry, with his hat trick two weeks ago — it should have been four — giving him a staggering 13 goals in 16 career matches against the London side.
The Argentina international has three goals in as many non-Premier League matches versus Chelsea, getting a brace in a 2009 Champions League group stage game with Atletico Madrid and the match-winner in City’s 2013 FA Cup semifinal win.
The only other debate over Guardiola’s first XI will be if he stays with Aro Muric between the sticks like has throughout this tournament or calls upon first-choice keeper Ederson, whose sidewinder at Schalke stood as the match-winning assist on Sterling’s goal.
The easy prediction about this game is that professional pride dictates this will be a closer game than the one-sided smackdown that took place at the Etihad two weeks ago. It will be interesting to see whether Bernardo Silva roams into the middle to form a diamond of sorts with David Silva and De Bruyne while Aguero and Sterling try to pinch Jorginho in the final third.
Chelsea have shown resiliency in previous versions of the matches that followed their crushing defeats. They did so against Malmo in a convincing 3-0 win and 5-1 aggregate victory. But right now, City simply look too good and too dominant to think the trophy will change hands come the final whistle.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Chelsea 0.