Comparing Sarri’s first Premier League campaign to Guardiola

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The prevailing narrative surrounding Chelsea this season is that Maurizio Sarri is in over his head, and he appears one or two more defeats away from losing his job.

But in this case, the narrative may not really align with the facts. According to Opta, Maurizio Sarri’s record through 43 competitive games in England is actually better than Pep Guardiola‘s was in that time span. Due to Manchester City’s utter dominance last season and pretty dominant play overall this season, Guardiola’s been discussed as one of the world’s greatest living coaches.

[READ: Arsenal, Chelsea advance in Europa League]

Chelsea had hired the Italian former banker to help the Blues get back into the top four. Sarri’s legend grew over the past few years, after he led Napoli back into the elite echelon in Italy before coming to London this summer. Sarri’s arrival at Stamford Bridge came with his star playmaker Jorginho making the move to England as well.

However, things haven’t exactly gone as planned for Chelsea this season. While it appeared this season could be a transition year, with Thibaut Courtois gone and other players learning new roles – hello, N'Golo Kante – the team’s results have not been up to par for the fans. In addition, it appears that Sarri’s tactical inflexibility has only ratcheted up the narrative that he is on the hot seat. Playing Kante as a box-to-box midfielder and not providing more protection for Jorginho, who is defensively challenged in a key place on the field, is at times head scratching. So is sticking with the 4-3-3 formation, and using many of the same substitutions regardless of the result. Mateo Kovacic for Ross Barkley or vice versa. Pedro for Willian, or vice versa.

And yet, Sarri’s record to this point is still better than Guardiola’s was during his first 43 games in Manchester. It’s easy to forget now, after a record-setting season for Manchester City, but Guardiola had to work his way through some early troubles at the Etihad Stadium. Manchester City actually went about a month without a win:

  • Draw with Celtic
  • Defeat to Tottenham
  • Draw with Everton
  • Defeat to Barcelona
  • Draw with Southampton
  • Defeat to Manchester United

Since then, Guardiola’s experienced defeats or draws here or there, but he’s proved that his team can respond after a disappointing result.

Chelsea’s form meanwhile includes five demoralizing defeats this calendar year, including an inexplicable 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth.

Luckily for Sarri, he may have a few more weeks on the job, if not more. With Chelsea’s 3-0 (5-1 on aggregate) win over Malmo, Sarri’s job is safe for now, until Chelsea finds out its next European opponent. If Sarri can win the Europa League and get Chelsea back into the Premier League, he’ll surely keep his job for at least another season. And perhaps, with some perspective, people will see that Sarri’s actually been pretty decent this season. Maybe, it just not up to sky-high expectations.

Sarri an isolated manager after Chelsea fans turn on him

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LONDON (AP) The volley of abusive chants from Chelsea supporters were aimed in a different direction this time. Toward the sideline at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Liverpool blunted by Bayern, and vice versa, in first-leg draw ]

Players were spared on Monday, there was no need to dig out the “rats” banners from 2015, and supporters seem just fine with Eden Hazard and Co.

Typically loyal to their managers — and there have been a dozen alone this century — many Chelsea fans instead seem to be done with Maurizio Sarri even before the end of his first season in charge.

Losing in the FA Cup to Manchester United was the breaking point, even if it wasn’t a complete rout. The cup competition is low on Chelsea’s priority list — winning it wasn’t enough to save Antonio Conte last season — but the end of that quest only adds to the despair.

In this rebuilding season, winning the Premier League — as Conte did in 2017 before finishing fifth the next year — couldn’t have been expected given the strength of Manchester City. But neither was a slide to sixth in the standings and a scramble for one of the four Champions League places.

“I am worried about the results,” Sarri said after Monday’s 2-0 loss to United. “Not about the fans.”

But the mutinous atmosphere won’t be lost on owner Roman Abramovich, who has spent the year watching from afar because the British government stymied the Russian billionaire’s visa renewal. That offshoot of the London-Moscow diplomatic dispute feeds the uncertainty at Chelsea.

[ MORE: Lyon strong at home, hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw (video) ]

Without fan backing, the 60-year-old Sarri — without a trophy in his career — looks isolated and exposed. The much-vaunted “Sarriball” is now part of the vocabulary of vitriol in chants — with added expletive.

It’s reminiscent of Rafa Benitez‘s interim title being used against the caretaker coach five years ago. Even in the darkest days of Jose Mourinho’s second spell in charge — as Benitez’s successor — it was the players who were blamed. Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Hazard were branded “rats.”

Hazard is the only one of the trio still on the team — not that he gives the impression of wanting to stick around. The Belgium winger has avoided committing his future to Chelsea and has openly stoked talk of a transfer to Real Madrid.

Much like Madrid, Chelsea oscillates from glory to gloom under a conveyor belt of managers.

There’s also a regular flow of trophies, albeit only potentially secondary ones this season. Chelsea can still win the League Cup by beating Manchester City on Sunday and remains in contention in the Europa League.

While Madrid dropped to sixth place at one point this season in the Spanish league, the team hauled itself back up to third. Chelsea, which has won the Premier League five times since 2005, hasn’t been as successful. In the last month, the London club has lost to Arsenal, Manchester City — a 6-0 humiliation — and even to an ostensibly inferior Bournemouth.

For the stubborn Sarri, there seems to be no alternative to the “Sarriball” pressing tactics that helped his Napoli team push Juventus hard for the Italian title. Just a repetitive sequence of decisions.

– a reluctance to trust young players like Callum Hudson-Odoi.

– a determination to shoehorn Jorginho into defensive midfield, forcing N'Golo Kante out of position in favor of the recruit from Napoli.

– persisting with a back four after a three-man defense proved so effective for Conte.

– substitutions repeated in like-for-like changes. If it’s not Ross Barkley replacing Mateo Kovacic in central midfield, then they are interchanging the other way – 20 times this season. Pedro Rodriguez and Willian have swapped places 14 times.

For all the problems, it’s easy to forget that it took Chelsea three months to lose a game as Sarri started on an 18-match unbeaten run. Losing to Tottenham in November now seems to be a significant turning point.

Before that 13th game, Chelsea was in third place and had scored 27 and conceded only eight times in the league. Since then, Chelsea had netted 18 and conceded 21.

The cups will now define Sarri’s future, and it’s one down and two to go this week.

Chelsea holds a 2-1 lead over Malmo in the Europa League heading into the second leg of the round of 32 on Thursday before the League Cup final against City at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

“The most important thing now is to stay calm, train really hard and recover our best football and our best feeling,” Pedro said, “because if not, we are in trouble.”

More specifically, Sarri will be.

FA Cup: Pogba scores, assists as Man Utd bounce Chelsea (video)

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Manchester United are through to the quarterfinals of the 2018-19 FA Cup, thanks to a superstar performance from Paul Pogba which was more than enough to see the Red Devils waltz past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Monday.

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The game’s opening 20 minutes flew by with very few chances of note, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side established itself as the aggressors from the outset.

Man United were rewarded for their efforts and broke the deadlock just after the half-hour mark, when Ander Herrera headed home a masterful cross from Pogba. It’s hard to believe this is the same Pogba, watching him run at Marcos Alonso before cutting inside and lofting the ball to the back post with pinpoint accuracy, who wasn’t good enough for Jose Mourinho’s team not so long ago.

It was Pogba who, given all the world’s freedom to maraud forward and join the attack these days, sent Marcus Rashford into acres of space with an aggressive through ball to begin the move for United’s second goal in the 45th minute. Pogba wasn’t done there, though, as he embarked upon a 50-yard, all-out sprint into the penalty area, where Rashford’s cross met his head, and the ball met the back of the net.

[ MORE: Premier League or UCL more important for Liverpool? ]

Nemanja Matic likely should have been shown a second yellow card and sent off in the 51st minute, after he tripped Eden Hazard to end a potential counter-attack, but referee Kevin Friend let the Serb off with one final warning

Down 2-0 at home, with a place in the quarterfinals quickly slipping away, Maurizio Sarri opted for not a single substitution at halftime. When the changes finally began in the 58th minute, Sarri seemed to follow a predictable, rigid script: Willian for Pedro (58th); Ross Barkley for Mateo Kovacic (71st); Davide Zappacosta for Cesar Azpilicueta (82nd) was, to be fair, less predictable but equally ineffective.

United fans added further insult to the defeat with 15 minutes let to play in the game. Oh, how the world can turn upside down in a couple months’ time.

Chelsea top Malmo in Europa League

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Ross Barkley scored 30 minutes in, and that was all Chelsea needed as they picked up a solid first-leg advantage with a 2-1 victory over Malmo in Sweden.

The former Everton midfielder made a blistering run to reach Pedro‘s deep cross, losing his defender while collecting the ball and firing an off-balance shot into the back of the net on the half-hour mark. Olivier Giroud added the icing on the cake in the 58th minute as Willian sent the ball across the face of goal and the Frenchman was on hand to poke it in on the doorstep.

It wasn’t elementary for the Blues, as Malmo was dangerous throughout the match, especially in the start of the second half as blocks from David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta kept the home side out. Ultimately, despite holding just 33% possession, Malmo somehow outshot Chelsea 14-4 through the first hour of the match but could only put one of those on target. Anders Christiansen eventually grabbed a late goal for Malmo in the 80th minute to give the Blues something to think about in the second leg. The Danish international struck on the break as he beat Emerson to a through-ball and muscled him off for the finish.

Mateo Kovacic was the biggest influencer in the match for Chelsea, completing a hefty 115/117 passes and completing all three of his one-on-one take-ons. Barkley was the most dangerous going forward, scoring the first goal and then running the break before distributing to Willian ahead of Giroud’s finish.

The win for the Blues is a solid bounce-back from its embarrassing 6-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City, as winning on the road in European play is always a positive result. It also means Chelsea has reached 10 straight European games unbeaten, with nine wins and a draw in that span.

Chelsea now heads home for the second leg on February 21, holding a solid advantage in the matchup. Malmo would need to outscore Chelsea by two goals and also score more than two goals to win in regulation.

Watch Live: Manchester City v. Chelsea

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Chelsea looks to beat Manchester City for the second time in all of this season’s competitions when it visits the Etihad Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Willian and Mateo Kovacic are the biggest names on the bench for the visitors, while Leroy Sane and David Silva will have to wait for their Man City introduction.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Ederson, Walker, Stones, Laporte, Zinchenko, Fernandinho, Gundogan, De Bruyne, Sterling, Bernardo, Aguero. Subs: Muric, Danilo, Sane, Silva, Mahrez, Otamendi, Jesus.

Chelsea: Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz, Alonso, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Pedro, Higuain, Hazard. Subs: Caballero, Christensen, Emerson, Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic, Willian, Giroud.