Frustrating doesn’t even start to describe the feeling around Stamford Bridge after going out of the FA Cup to Manchester United. Certainly there was an improvement in the display from the game against Manchester City last week, but that is very small if any comfort. Looking at the first half, I agreed with Maurizio Sarri, that United were not noticeably better than Chelsea. In fact we probably shaded it in terms of the quality of football played, but it is of course the goals that count above all.
The second goal before half-time was the killer blow. Even though the first 15 minutes of the second half was played at a higher tempo with the Blues dominating possession and trying to get more balls into the box a bit more quickly, United seemed to know exactly what they had to do and just as importantly what we were going to do.
The statistics say that we had two-thirds of the possession over the course of the 90 minutes but to be honest, those sort of statistics regarding how much time you have on the ball are ringing rather hollow. It is the quality of possession and what you do with the ball when you have it in the attacking areas that is most important.
Man United crowded out Eden Hazard with at least two, sometimes three and on a few occasions four markers. Eden put in a superb shift in terms of work-rate, which may or may not have come across on TV, but it was clear to see at the ground itself. With those dedicated markers all over him however it was always going to be a tall order to regularly break through their rearguard. There was a moment in the second half when he cut in from the right but his low shot was deflected over when we expected the net to bulge. Had that gone in with the impetus it would have added then we would have enjoyed an interesting finale.
In the end United adapted better on the night and shut the game down very well. They have improved in confidence and have never been predictable since Ole Gunner Solksjaer took over, so we definitely got them at the wrong time. I have to applaud the exuberance as well as the intelligence he has brought to his team in such short order. It really is only a couple of months since United’s season looked like a write-off, so it is always possible to turn things around however bleak they look. Having said that, I and indeed we, could not care less about them just now. Chelsea have to do the same and get back on the winning track very quickly. As a group of players it is clear that (once again) another game is just what is needed right now and Thursday can’t come quickly enough.
With Malmo needing at least two goals to go through in the tie, changes will be made to the side as much to freshen it up as to rest those who have to face City on Sunday. It is not only getting through against the Swedish side that is important on this occasion. For once in a cup-tie it is just as important to send out a statement at home against a side that cost a small fraction of ours to put together.
Malmo worked hard against the Blues in the first leg. They pressed incredibly high and they were rewarded with a late goal that kept the tie interesting. Considering they haven’t been playing competitive matches for months, I have nothing but praise for Uwe Rossler and his side even if the tackles were a bit more aggressive than would usually be acceptable. This one however is at Stamford Bridge, against a Chelsea team that is hurting, in front of a crowd that is expectant and who will be demanding a high-level performance.
The players will be able to regain focus very quickly after the United game, basically because you do not have a choice in football. Even if every fan is still hurting after our defeats against the Manchester clubs in particular, for the players it will not even enter their minds after the starting whistle blows on Thursday. So while the press perfectly understandably pile on the pressure during what is becoming a difficult month at the club, the players should be resilient enough to cope.
They will definitely be thinking about what can still be won as opposed to what has already been lost. So yes we have dropped down the league from fourth to sixth but there is only a point separating us from Arsenal and United. A win against Spurs next week with the league games that follow on from that one would keep the team in the hunt for Champions League qualification.
The Carabao Cup final will not be written off by a single player, even if they are self-aware enough to know that City are favourites for this one. And of course the Europa League will be battled for tooth and nail, everyone knows where that can lead. I still have a feeling that if both teams get through it is quite likely that there will eventually be a meeting between Chelsea and Napoli. It is just the way football seems to work.
From the outside, this positive mental attitude might actually seem self-deluding, especially with recent results but it serves an important purpose. If the players do not truly believe that some or all of the above goals are actually still possible, then it is absolutely certain they will not achieve any of them.