United storm Stamford Bridge to get back to winning ways
Goals from Herrera and Pogba saw Solskjaer’s team book FA Cup quarter-final spot
Paul Pogba of Manchester United celebrates with Romelu Lukaku after scoring his team’s second goal during the FA Cup fifth round win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Chelsea will not stand for much more of this. Maurizio Sarri, isolated and alone, shuffled around his technical area as his team were out-muscled, out-manoeuvred and out-classed by Manchester United to depart the FA Cup. The Italian’s eyes never left the pitch, but he could not have escaped the repertoire of chants, whipped up by the fans in the Matthew Harding stand where faith in the current regime is wrecked beyond repair, which damned their own head coach. The humiliation was brutal.
They veered from “You don’t know what you’re doing”, via an industrial and scathing assessment of Sarri-ball, to bellowed praise of Frank Lampard, a favourite figure whose candidacy as a potential replacement, for all that his current focus is with Derby, has been enhanced by Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s startling success with United since December.
Up in the west stand, Roman Abramovich’s box was dark and empty, with the absent owner presumably oblivious to the cries of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” that echoed around all four stands.
In the recent ruthless past, the oligarch may have already acted. As it is, Sarri must fret over his future even before Thursday’s Europa League return tie with Malmo, let alone Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. That occasion must fill him with dread at present though, given the mutinous mood in these parts, he could be spared involvement.
This had always appeared the most mouth-watering tie of the fifth round, a meeting of heavyweights with the intrigue surrounding the futures of the respective head coach and caretaker manager’s positions thrown in.
There had been a pleasing rhythm from the outset, but it was the spikiness, more eagerly demonstrated by the visitors, which illustrated the significance of the occasion. United would have Ashley Young and Nemanja Matic cautioned in the opening period, but the little shove, unnoticed by the referee, by Chris Smalling that sent Marcos Alonso careering into the advertising hoardings midway through the opening period rather summed up their steely resolve. United were never likely to wilt, but they knew Chelsea could be knocked off their stride.
By the interval their advantage was well established and felt potentially decisive, the boos that echoed around the arena from the home support indicative of their livid mood.
There had been too much energy and aggression in United’s approach play, with Alonso – whose form has nosedived since the autumn – and David Luiz too easily bullied into submission.
Whenever Chelsea hesitated in midfield, United swarmed in to capitalise, with Ander Herrera snapping into challenges, Paul Pogba all leggy energy down the left, and Marcus Rashford too slippery to handle.
Perhaps the hosts might have settled had Gonzalo Higuaín guided a free header on target or Sergio Romero not thwarted David Luiz’s free-kick and Pedro’s follow-up. Instead, the home side were breached first and all the insecurities exposed at the Etihad and Vitality stadiums reared again.
United’s opener had been slickly constructed through midfield, the passing orchestrated by Juan Mata, one of a trio of visiting players back in old haunts, to free Pogba from the mess of bodies down the flank.
He teased space from Antonio Rüdiger before conjuring a glorious cross to the far post where Herrera was free to nod back across Kepa Arrizabalaga and into the far corner. At first glance it seemed inconceivable that the diminutive Spaniard had been permitted by Alonso, the fall-guy of the moment, to leap and score. Chelsea’s entire midfield had been rendered lopsided by Mata’s promptings, with Mateo Kovacic, who might have tracked the Spaniard’s run, attracted to the ball in the build-up. César Azpilicueta, too, had been caught up-field and was still ambling back as the goal was scored.
Chelsea had been warned. Smalling had planted a free header, from Matic’s floated centre over Azpilicueta, straight at Kepa early on, with the vulnerability flaring far too often.
As half-time approached, and Sarri a picture of agitation on the sidelines, the hosts surrendered the ball yet again just inside their own territory for Pogba to slide Rashford into space down the right. A panicked David Luiz stood off the England forward, whose cross was duly met emphatically by the Frenchman, diving in between Rüdiger and Azpilicueta in the centre, to double the lead via the goalkeeper’s right glove.
The hosts were deflated, David Luiz and Alonso squabbling after the first concession and too many of their players waving their arms in baffled submission as they digested the loss of the second goal.
Up in the stand, John Terry must have winced through the ignominy of it all, with this a team stripped of his kind of tub-thumping leader. Their defending was fraught with anxiety whenever Rashford glided at them at pace and the urgency in their own attacking play was laced with desperation as they chased the tie.
When Pedro threatened to wriggle on to the Frenchman’s pass inside Luke Shaw, the full-back stretched bravely to poke the ball behind. Victor Lindelöf’s lunge would ensure Eden Hazard’s shot, spat away after he cut inside, would soar over the bar.
That it was all played out to the crowing from the visiting supporters crammed into the Shed end added to the sense that the locals had been frazzled by the whole experience.
Sarri would lead the calls for Matic, irate at having been wrongly penalised seconds earlier after pilfering the ball from Hazard, to be shown a second yellow card after he tripped N’Golo Kanté. Yet, by then, this was the kind of meek defeat that would normally earn a Chelsea head coach the sack. – Guardian service