By Daily Mail
The scoreline told its own story: these are two clubs on very different paths now. Whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ends up a permanent fixture at Manchester United, he has done what he was employed to do in December. He has turned this ship around, he has made it a happy vessel again.
United are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup with Wolves now to beat, in the top four of the Premier League and on course to be in the Champions League next season.
They will do this, it seems, at the expense of Chelsea – a club that has lost its way under Maurizio Sarri, and that United deservedly dumped out of the FA Cup, just as surely as they have evicted them from the Champions League places.
Chelsea will contend the Carabao Cup final with Manchester City on Sunday, but fans will travel in hope more than expectation, and not even much of that with City winning their most recent meeting 6-0.
It was never going to be that against the red half of Manchester, but United were comfortable, two goals clear at half-time and contained Chelsea from there.
Victor Lindelof got a vital block in on a rare Eden Hazard shot that might have sparked a revival in the second-half, and it may be argued that United’s Nemanja Matic was lucky not to receive a second yellow for some ferocious tackling in midfield, but these are minor quibbles and diversions. Chelsea did not muster a shot on target after the 11th minute – including 45 when they were chasing a two goal deficit.
United were better and appear to have been liberated by Solskjaer as much as Chelsea seem weighed down by Sarri’s dogma. His second half substitutions – the inevitable Ross Barkley-Mateo Kovacic switch, plus full-back Davide Zappacosta for Cesar Azpilicueta – bought equal parts mockery and outright disdain, with Callum Hudson-Odoi again imprisoned on the bench.
‘You don’t know what you’re doing,’ sang the locals, but that’s just the problem. He does. It’s just that what he is doing is increasingly unsuccessful and maddeningly repetitive. The same moves, born of the same principles, repeated endlessly with diminishing returns.
Sarri did not even put N’Golo Kante, a defensive midfielder supreme, on Paul Pogba, despite seeing the Marquinhos effect when Paris St Germain came to Old Trafford last week. Marquinhos marked Pogba out of the game until the United man lost his rag late on and was dismissed. Sarri is too committed to his strategy to make plans for a dangerous opponent.
The upshot? A goal and an assist for the player who will run the game for Manchester United if he is allowed. It is not as if Pogba’s resurgence is a secret, either. In the time since Solskjaer was appointed, he has been involved in 15 goals or assists for Manchester United. Only Son Heung-Min for Tottenham has more in that period with 16, and he is being discussed as a potential Footballer of the Year.
Apart from two good performances against Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semi-final, in 2019 each meeting with a member of the elite has seemed a moment of reckoning for Sarri. The result at Manchester City was an abject humiliation, but a 2-0 defeat by Arsenal and now this also point to an inevitable conclusion given Roman Abramovich’s patience with failing managers.
Yet as Sarri flounders, so Solskjaer’s stock continues to rise. He has always maintained that there would be a setback in his Manchester United tenure and the key would be how his players reacted to it. Defeat by PSG at home was that setback and the answer to Solskjaer’s question was: magnificently.
The opening 45 minutes at Stamford Bridge was a most eloquent riposte to any idea the Solskjaer regime might have been found out by one bad night in Europe, or shallowly constructed on little more than good cheer.
Even missing Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard through injury, United were consistently superior and looked the greater danger going forward until the game was as good as won.
One would have thought the idea Solskajer lacked the tactical smarts at the top level had been put to bed by now, but just in case there were any doubters after the visit of PSG, here was another game plan shot through with intelligence.
As at Arsenal in the previous round he deployed Romelu Lukaku forward on one flank to good effect, while Marcus Rashford patrolled the other side. In the middle, Juan Mata deputised in Lingard’s withdrawn role, while around him Pogba and Ander Herrera ensured there was plenty of activity in the areas where Jorginho likes to operate.
This is essential when playing Chelsea. Jorginho did play one lovely ball that was squandered by Gonzalo Higuain’s poor control but, that aside, Chelsea chances were largely limited to shots from range, well repelled by stand-in goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and a header from Higuain from Azpilicueta’s cross that at the very least should have been steered on target.
In the 11th minute Romero saved an excellent free-kick from David Luiz only for the rebound to fall to Pedro. He struck it on the volley but Romero was equal to that, too. Eden Hazard played a neat one-two with Kovacic before curling a shot wide a minute later and, after United had gone a goal up, Chelsea almost found a fortunate route back into the game when a Pedro cross took a slight deflection and turned into a near-perfect lob.
So a bit of luck, a little judgement and not much else from Chelsea. United, by contrast, were always a threat. From the second minute when Pogba found Mata, eventually involving Lukaku whose cross was cut out by Luiz with Rashford lurking, it was plain United had a strategy for getting in behind Chelsea from wide positions.
Solskjaer has, undoubtedly, allowed these players a freedom that was previously absent, so even the unlikeliest of them pop up in attacking positions. How was it that centre-half Chris Smalling was available when Matic played a neat chip through in the ninth minute? He really should have done better with a header directed straight at goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
The pressure began to show when Arrizabalaga made an utter hash of a back pass from Azpilicueta, almost letting in Rashford directly in front of Chelsea’s posts. From their next attack, however, United took the lead.
Pogba had experienced a quiet half hour but was finally given the room to pick out a pass from wide and Chelsea paid a heavy price. His cross was a beauty and Herrera – one of the smallest players on the field, but frequently among United’s most effective under Solskjaer – lost Marcos Alonso to guide a header into the corner leaving Arrizabalaga no chance.
Worse followed, seconds before half-time. This time it was a Rashford cross and Pogba, still without a shadow, who stole between Antonio Rudiger and Azpilicueta to convert United’s second header of the night.
In that instant, it could be sensed Chelsea had no retort. United had not won here since October 28, 2012, a sequence that could be quickly reversed.