For the second straight season, Manchester United take on Chelsea in the FA Cup — with the Reds surely hoping to avenge last year’s tough-luck loss at Wembley. Monday’s fifth round tie brings slightly lower stakes than the 2018 final, but is nevertheless an important match for both sides.
All good things must come to an end and, on Tuesday, so too did Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s unbeaten start as caretaker manager. After ten wins from eleven, United lost 2-0 to short-handed Paris Saint-Germain, burying the Reds in a deep Champions League hole. Even worse, United caught the injury bug and lost Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial by halftime.
Lingard came off in the 45th minute with a bad hamstring, while Martial (groin) gutted his way through the first half but did not return after the break. Solskjaer doesn’t sound too optimistic that either will play at Stamford Bridge on Monday, so fans best prepare themselves for Juan Mata, Alexis Sánchez, or Romelu Lukaku. If Ole’s feeling especially bold, though, Tahith Chong would make an intriguing option.
Alexis replaced Lingard against PSG, but delivered a shocking performance on the biggest stage. It was just the latest in a long line of disappointing displays from the Chilean. In fact, it even earned him a downbeat assessment from the always-sunny Solskjaer. “I can’t do anything about Alexis Sánchez,” the boss said. When you’ve lost Ole, the end must be near.
One bit of good news: Despite being sent off on Tuesday night, Paul Pogba will be available for the FA Cup. He's out for next month’s Champions League return trip to Paris, but his UEFA suspension won’t affect Monday’s domestic match.
With those two crucial injuries (and Pogba getting tossed), it’s no surprise that United could not keep up with PSG. Kylian Mbappé ripped the backline to shreds, Ángel Di María infuriated Old Trafford with both his antics and strong play, and Gianluigi Buffon barely had a thing to do in the PSG goal. Only one shot on target ain’t gonna get it done.
Back in October, United came within seconds of dealing Chelsea their first loss under new manager Maurizio Sarri. But a stoppage time equalizer from Ross Barkley robbed the Reds of a big win in London. Martial scored a brace that day for the visitors, so United will need someone else to step up in front of goal on Monday.
Chelsea enter this match after a 2-1 Europa League win at Malmo, but likely still seething over the 6-0 beatdown against Manchester City last weekend. That loss at the Etihad remains a sore point for many, throwing Sarri’s future in doubt and again raising questions about player power at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea has dropped down to sixth in the Premier League and it’s hard to imagine Sarri surviving a finish below fourth.
Unless his Blues win the Europa League. As Manchester United learned in 2016/17, Europe’s lesser continental competition can be a season-saving backdoor into the Champions League. Between that and the FA Cup, there’s little doubt over which Sarri will prioritize. Missing the Champions League costs managers their jobs. The FA Cup? Not so much.
With that in mind, Chelsea took their full squad to Sweden for the mid-week Europa League match against Malmo. Only Marcos Alonso stayed in London to rest, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek missed out with a back problem. Sarri didn’t necessarily name his strongest starting eleven for the match — keeping Gonzalo Higuain, Eden Hazard, and N’Golo Kante in reserve — but all of that travel (and a surprisingly close game with Malmo) should take a toll.
Chelsea added Higuain in January, declaring the Alvaro Morata experiment a failure and reuniting Sarri with one of his favorites in one fell swoop. In 2015/16 — the only season with Higuain and Sarri together at Napoli — the Argentine forward scored 36 goals in Serie A. In England, the early returns have been mixed. He’s already scored two goals, but also been on the wrong side of 4-0 and 6-0 defeats.
For Manchester United, this cup tie takes on increased importance after the 2-0 loss to PSG. Although some regarded United as a dark horse in the Champions League, that route to silverware now looks unlikely. Barring a big comeback at the Parc des Princes next month, it’s the FA Cup or bust for the men in red.