It was business as usual for Maurizio Sarri as he led Chelsea’s training session on Wednesday despite intense speculation over his future as manager.
The Blues defend a 2-1 first leg lead against Swedish club Malmo in the last-32 of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday night and Sarri knows he cannot afford anything less than victory at Stamford Bridge.
Maybe with that in mind, the Italian was deep in conversation with on-loan striker Gonzalo Higuain as the squad walked out to the training pitches at Cobham.
Under-pressure Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri deep in conversation with striker Gonzalo Higuain
The Italian is in search of a saviour after recent poor results left his job hanging by a thread
Meanwhile, Ross Barkley brought down Mateo Kovacic with a hefty challenge in training
The two players, who are often subbed for one another by Sarri, were left wincing
The two midfielders were soon back on their feet, with Barkley checking on Kovacic
And was Ross Barkley ensuring he gets a full 90 minutes with what looked like a heavy challenge on Mateo Kovacic?
The Croatian midfielder was left wincing following Barkley’s tackle from behind, though the Englishman seemed to hurt himself as well.
Sarri has decided to replace Barkley with Kovacic or vice versa 20 times in all competitions this season (17 Premier League, two Carabao Cup and one FA Cup).
For many fans, it has come to represent an inertia with his ‘Sarri-ball’ tactics that simply aren’t working in English football.
Monday’s FA Cup exit to Manchester United, in addition to recent heavy Premier League losses to Bournemouth and Manchester City, have left Sarri’s job hanging by a threat.
Chelsea play City again on Sunday in the Carabao Cup final but first must negotiate the test of Malmo and make it through to the last-16 of the Europa League.
Sarri keeps a close eye on Eden Hazard as Chelsea prepare for their second leg with Malmo
Young striker Callum Hudson-Odoi on the ball as he hopes for a rare appearance on Thursday
Hudson-Odoi is pictured with Cesar Azpilicueta during a training exercise at Cobham
With the club currently sixth in the Premier League table – albeit just a point behind United in fourth – winning the Europa League could prove their ticket into next season’s Champions League.
Speaking at his press conference on Wednesday, Sarri insisted that a run of positive results could yet give him a long-term future as Chelsea manager despite open mutiny from fans on Monday night.
Owner Roman Abramovich isn’t known for his patience when it comes to managers and Sarri could well be on his way after just seven months in the job if they falter this weekend.
‘We need to win three, four matches in a row. It’s the only solution,’ said Sarri, when asked if he can change fans’ views.
‘I can understand very well the frustration of our fans, because they are used to winning. Now we are in trouble, so I can understand very well.
Marcos Alonso gives the thumbs up as he walks out for the pre-Malmo training session
Olivier Giroud, Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante make their way out to the training pitches
‘There isn’t another way. We can only have good performances and results.’
Sarri says he has not spoken to Abramovich or director Marina Granovskaia this week.
‘I have to think that I will be the manager of Chelsea for a long time, otherwise I cannot work,’ he added.
‘I am not sure (if I will be here for a long time), but I have to think this. I have to work and I want to work with a long-range target.
‘Of course in this moment it’s very difficult to think we’re able to win three, four matches in a row. As you know very well in football everything can change in one day.
‘I think we need first of all a good performance, a good result and with more confidence we are able to do anything.’
Chelsea’s congested fixture calendar makes finding solutions difficult for Sarri.
Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu, both wearing bright orange boots, head out
Sarri offers instructions to Willian as Chelsea prepare for another European engagement
A pivotal few days awaits Willian and Co as they take on Malmo and then Manchester City
Eden Hazard plays a pass during Wednesday’s training session ahead of the second leg
Sarri kicks a football as the under-pressure boss prepares for the visit of Malmo on Thursday
Premier League unless stated
Thursday Malmo (H) Europa League last-32, second leg
Sunday Manchester City (Wembley) Carabao Cup final
February 27 Tottenham (H)
March 3 Fulham (A)
March 10 Wolves (H)
March 17 Everton (A)
‘It’s not very easy because we have no time,’ Sarri added.
‘We’re trying to solve our problems. It’s not easy. We’re trying to talk with the players, trying to avoid some mistakes by video.
‘It’s not easy, because we have to play every three days, so on the pitch we have no time.’
The Italian’s stubborn refusal to compromise on his 4-3-3 system and possession-based style known as ‘Sarri-ball’ was ridiculed by the home supporters on Monday.
‘The system is a false problem,’ the 60-year-old added.
‘I know very well that when we lose I have to put a striker on the pitch. When we win I have to put a defender on the pitch. But I want to see football in another way.’
Full-back Davide Zappacosta is a doubt with illness, winger Pedro with a stomach problem and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga with a hamstring injury.
Sarri is uncertain whether Kepa will be fit to play on Sunday, so Willy Caballero could be asked to deputise against his former club with a trophy at stake.