Maurizio Sarri will be fighting to save his job when crisis club Chelsea face Manchester United in the FA Cup fifth round this evening.
Sarri is in danger of being sacked after a dismal first season at Stamford Bridge and crashing out of the FA Cup would push the Italian closer to the axe.
Chelsea suffered their heaviest defeat for 28 years when they were thrashed 6-0 at Manchester City last weekend, 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 held clear-the-air talks this week in a bid to convince the squad to stick with him.
It is not the first time he has challenged Chelsea’s stars after accusing them of being hard to motivate, questioning their mental strength and claiming they don’t understand even the basics of his game plan.
Sarri’s players are said to be unhappy with the Italian’s uninspiring training methods and refusal to adapt his tactics to the players he has at his disposal.
Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante are all being asked to perform roles that are ill-suited to their strengths and so far Sarri’s lengthy debriefs have made little difference.
While ‘Sarri-ball’ was a big hit with Napoli, Chelsea have looked laboured for much of this season, struggling for cohesion in midfield and lacking cutting edge up front.
Demanding Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and influential director Marina Granovskaia are unlikely to spare Sarri unless results and performances improve soon.
That means Sarri must lift Chelsea – beaten in seven of their last 22 games – back into the Premier League’s top four and keep them on course for silverware.
They are still in the Europa League, having beaten Malmo in the last 32 first leg on Thursday, and face Manchester City in the League Cup final next Sunday.
But first Sarri must focus on United’s visit to the Bridge as holders Chelsea look to move closer to a third successive FA Cup final appearance.
“We know it’s a crucial moment. We have some very important matches. The first will be United. It’s very challenging,” Sarri’s assistant Gianfranco Zola said.
Responding to the mounting sense of gloom around Chelsea, Zola called on his squad to pull together.
“Nobody is pleased when you lose games the way we did recently. Not only the players, but the coaches and everyone,” he said.
“It’s a moment when we’ve been alternating the results, going from one good performance to a bad one.
“We have to be consistent. We all know this, and it’s important everyone understands the situation and is working on it.
“This is important. The unity facing the challenge will make the difference.”
United were beaten by Chelsea in last season’s final, but much has changed at Old Trafford since May.
Jose Mourinho was sacked in December and his replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had overseen a remarkable turnaround as interim boss.
Solskjaer went unbeaten in his first 11 games in all competitions, lifting United above Chelsea into the top four.
But their momentum stalled in a big way on Tuesday when Paris Saint Germain won 2-0 in the Champions League last 16, first leg in Manchester.
United’s attempt to get back on track has been hit by injuries to Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, who are both out for up to three weeks.
Solskjaer expects a strong response despite those key absences, saying: “I hate losing games and it seems like the boys hate losing games.
“There’s no point dwelling on it because there are big games against good teams coming up. We need to dust ourselves down and get going again on Monday.
“You’ve got to bounce back at this club. You don’t panic because you’ve lost a game, you don’t change everything. It doesn’t change the mindset at all.”