Sarri on the brink as Pogba fires United into FA Cup last eight

LONDON (AFP) – Paul Pogba drove Manchester United into the FA Cup quarter-finals and pushed Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri closer to the sack as the troubled holders crashed to a 2-0 defeat early yesterday.

Pogba set up United’s opening goal for Ander Herrera with a majestic cross and the France star added the second himself as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side produced a commanding display at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea’s lacklustre fifth round exit – their first FA Cup defeat since the 2017 final – was another painful blow for Sarri, who is facing a fight to save his job following a dismal debut season.

Chelsea suffered their heaviest defeat for 28 years when they were thrashed 6-0 at Manchester City recently, an indignity that came just weeks after a humiliating 4-0 loss at Bournemouth.

Amid claims Sarri has lost the support of his players, the former Napoli boss watched ashen-faced as Chelsea collapsed again for a fifth defeat in their last 10 games.

Sarri was subjected to chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” and “you’re getting sacked in the morning” from frustrated Chelsea fans, who called for their former star Frank Lampard, now in charge of Derby, to replace the Italian.

It was the worst possible start to a defining period for Sarri, whose stubborn tactics and dubious man-management have come under intense scrutiny.

Paul Pogba celebrates the win. – PHOTOS: AP
Ander Herrera (C) heads the ball to score Manchester United’s first goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals match

Chelsea, currently outside the Premier League’s top four, return to action against Malmo in the Europa League last 32 second leg holding a 2-1 lead tomorrow.

Assuming he hasn’t been axed by demanding Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich before then, a shock defeat against Malmo would be catastrophic for Sarri ahead of next Sunday’s League Cup Final date with Manchester City.

“Tonight we were unlucky because we played a very good first half and at the end of the half the score was 2-0,” Sarri said.

“We gave them a few opportunities. We played confusing football in the second half.

“After the first half it wasn’t easy to play with that score.”

Toothless Chelsea managed only two shots on target all night and the limp second half display suggested the players are hardly doing everything in their power to save Sarri.

United are through to the last eight for a fifth consecutive season as they look to win the FA Cup for a record-equalling 13th time and first since 2016.

United’s commanding display was the perfect way to bounce back after last week’s disappointing Champions League last 16 first leg loss to Paris Saint Germain.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was delighted with the way his players responded to that setback and United’s interim manager was especially impressed with their work-rate.

“The performance tonight was fantastic, our tactics worked. We asked our midfielders to press higher and get into the box and it worked,” Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer went unbeaten in his first 11 games and the interim boss showed his tactical skills by out-witting Sarri with his switch to a midfield diamond formation.

“Chelsea are a good team, they have their way of playing but Juan Mata did a fantastic job on Jorginho and we were absolutely perfect defensively. We kept a clean sheet.

“It is a massive result. We had criticism after the PSG game and everyone did what we asked them tonight.”

Even Solskjaer’s risky decision to select reserve goalkeeper Sergio Romero in place of David De Gea paid off.

In a frantic opening, Romero was called into action when David Luiz drilled a dipping free-kick over the United wall.

Romero kept out Luiz’s effort and scrambled to his feet to save Pedro’s powerful shot from the rebound.

Gonzalo Higuain should have opened the scoring from Cesar Azpilicueta’s teasing cross, but the Argentine striker headed wide.

Those misses proved fatal for Chelsea, whose early pressure was rendered irrelevant by another lapse of concentration in the 31st minute.

Mata picked out Pogba on the left wing and the United midfielder, unchecked by the slow-to-react Antonio Rudiger, unfurled a sublime cross that looped towards the far post.

Herrera timed his run perfectly to meet Pogba’s delivery in stride and Marcos Alonso fatally lost his man as the Spanish midfielder planted a close-range header past Kepa Arrizabalaga for his first goal since December.

Pogba was only just getting warmed up and he single-handedly ripped Chelsea part to double United’s lead on the stroke of half-time.

Playing an incisive pass down the right flank to Rashford, Pogba surged into the Chelsea area and muscled his way above Azpilicueta to meet his team-mate’s pin-point cross with a diving header that Kepa couldn’t keep out.

It was the 15th goal Pogba has been directly involved since Solskjaer took charge, underlined his renaissance since the sacking of Jose Mourinho.

Even Eden Hazard, marked out of the game for long periods, couldn’t rescue the beleaguered Sarri as he found a sliver of space, only to see his shot deflected over by Victor Lindelof as Chelsea succumbed tamely.