Monday night sees a rematch of last year’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Manchester United, but this time with much different stakes. Maurizio Sarri and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are fighting for a spot in the quarterfinals, but also fighting for their jobs in different ways. At the same time, two of United’s most expensive players may have one of their only remaining opportunities to prove their worth to stay in Manchester or woo a team looking to bring them in.
Three major stories to play out from this tie.
Will Sarri need to call a moving truck?
Only a week ago, Chelsea faced a team from Manchester, albeit not the Red Devils, and got hanged, drawn, and quartered for the entire league to see. Yet somehow the Italian remains in charge at Stamford Bridge. Should the Blues lose at home to Manchester United in the FA Cup, that could change.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich does not tolerate mediocrity for very long and that is exactly what Chelsea look like under Sarri. Clearly they don’t belong with the elites of England like Manchester City or Liverpool. Arguably they are on the same level with London rivals Tottenham, having recently beat them in the League Cup semi final, but is that where the Russian wants his club to be? No.
So, how do they measure up against United, who recently leapfrogged them in the league? Monday’s clash will answer that question and either show that Sarri should get some more slack on an already stretched out leash or get the sack.
This game has a lot more importance than Thursday’s win against Malmo. Granted, winning the Europa League gets Chelsea into next year’s Champions League while domestic cup advancement does not, so it wasn’t a game to take lightly. But Abramovich doesn’t seem like the type of guy who likes banking on a Europa League triumph.
Don’t get me wrong, he’ll take it this time, but not regularly. He wants Chelsea in the top 4, among the elites of the Premier League.
And after last week’s embarrassment against Man City, Sarri needs to show in this game that Chelsea is a top 4 team under his tutelage. Playing well in Sweden kept the former banker in his job while beating Manchester United and possibly winning the FA Cup means that he can compete against the best in England and deserves another season at Stamford Bridge.
This is an important game for Maurizio Sarri. His job depends on it.
Can Solskjaer get a nameplate for his desk?
In the exact opposite way, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is also fighting for his job with this game. Instead of a potential sacking awaiting him, the Norwegian can earn himself the job on a permanent basis with an impressive showing against the Blues.
At some point, his unbeaten run leading Manchester United was going to end. That was a no brainer. However, it ended in surprising fashion. PSG thoroughly outplayed United in the Champions League midweek bringing the club down from cloud 9 and also ushering in the opportunity for Solskjaer to prove he’s the right man.
How the manager and team respond to their first, and devastating, defeat is absolutely vital. And the fact that two important players up front, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, will miss through injury means that Solskjaer needs to rotate. The choices he makes and how he sets up the team will indicate whether United Chairman Ed Woodward should offer him the full time job or not.
If it’s Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Tahith Chong, who played in an earlier round of the FA Cup, or any other players that get the nod in the XI, if Solskjaer gets the right personnel and tactics to beat Chelsea, he proves he’s an adept and qualified manager.
The board at Old Trafford always knew that United wouldn’t go unbeaten after appointing a caretaker manager. And now that the very long new manager bounce has ended, this is the real time for Solskjaer to show he’s a top quality manager who can indeed manage at a massive club.
Lukaku and Sanchez earning a spot…at another club?
Manchester United have possibly the most expensive substitutes bench in history in Alexis Sanchez on half a million pounds a week and Romelu Lukaku on a quarter million a week on top of his £75 million transfer fee.
Both of them are substitutes. And not very impactful at that. With a litany of young attackers in front of them, both the Belgian and Chilean have to be looking for a move away from Manchester to secure regular playing time.
But without featuring regularly and the campaign entering the business end, neither one has many chances left to impress possible suitors. Assuming they play against Chelsea in this game, they have the opportunity to show they can make an impact.
It’s possible that both players have no problem riding out their contracts as fringe players like their high wage brother at Arsenal, Mesut Ozil, but it seems unlikely.
Lukaku is only 25 and has a substantial amount of time remaining in his career for both club and country so he definitely wants a transfer and regular playing time. With a good performance leading the line against his former club, the former Everton and Chelsea forward can entice another club to take a shot on him this summer.
Sanchez has the Copa America this June and July with Chile, going for a third consecutive trophy. But after that, will he still suit up for his country at Qatar 2022 at the age of 33, almost 34? Highly unlikely. So maybe he is content with huge wages and a substitute role. If he’s not though, he too needs to take advantage of any playing time he gets in the game against Chelsea.
Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez are of course playing this game to win, but are also playing for the future of their careers.