Maurizio Sarri’s future as Chelsea manager hinges on a pivotal week which sees them play three crucial matches in three cup competitions.
The Italian is hanging on to his job following three damaging Premier League defeats since the turn of the year that have jeopardised their chances of finishing in the top four.
Chelsea lost 2-0 at Arsenal before suffering a humiliating 4-0 loss at Bournemouth and a record 6-0 loss at Manchester City.
Chelsea could call time on Maurizio Sarri’s tenure as manager if they perform poorly in three crucial cup matches in the week ahead
Gonzalo Higuain reacts as Chelsea are thrashed 6-0 by Manchester City last weekend
Losing ground in the league table is one thing, but failure in the cups over the next few days would leave Chelsea’s season considerably below expectations.
Already there is a feeling in the dressing room that Sarri could be sacked – after just eight months in the job – if they fail to win at least one of this week’s games.
They host in-form Manchester United in a tricky FA Cup fifth-round tie on Monday night before playing Swedish side Malmo in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday and then Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, with counsel from trusted director Marina Granovskaia, will ultimately make the decision on whether to dispense with Sarri.
The trio of recent Premier League defeats has severely tested the squad’s faith in ‘Sarri-ball’, with players left confused by an overload of tactical instructions.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich could pull the trigger if Chelsea’s form slumps again
Sarri has remained stubbornly faithful to his ‘Sarri-ball’ techniques despite the poor results
His training sessions are felt to be repetitive and their early afternoon timing has caused frustrations because some players can no longer spend time with their young families.
After their first loss of the season at Tottenham back in November, Sarri called the players in for individual meetings.
And after the humbling at Bournemouth, he locked the squad in the dressing room for 50 minutes, even asking them for ways in which he could improve.
There was an hour of clear-the-air talks following the loss at City, after which many fans expected he would be fired, but there are few signs Sarri will budge from his tried and tested methods.
While the players can relate to Sarri on a personal level, the dressing room harmony isn’t what it could be ahead of a make-or-break week in their season.
We take a closer look at the three pivotal cup matches this week and how difficult they promise to be.
MONDAY: CHELSEA vs MANCHESTER UNITED
FA Cup fifth round
Regardless of their Champions League loss to Paris Saint-Germain last week, this remains a bad time to be playing Manchester United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has revitalised every aspect of the squad since he replaced Jose Mourinho back in December and their domestic form since has been almost flawless.
Though United will be without the injured attackers Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, they possess plenty of firepower to trouble Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea take on a resurgent Manchester United side in the fifth round of the FA Cup
Even with Mourinho still in charge, United came within seconds of claiming a Premier League win there earlier in the season.
With United off the title pace and halfway out of Europe, Solskjaer will view the FA Cup as a piece of silverware he can win to burnish his credentials for the job full-time.
Accordingly, it could prove to be a very difficult night for Chelsea.
Danger rating: 4/5
THURSDAY: CHELSEA vs MALMO
UEFA Europa League last-32, second leg
Goals from Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud put Chelsea in complete control of last Thursday’s first leg in Sweden.
But Sarri’s side then conceded 10 minutes from time to create a nervy finish and offer Malmo a little bit of encouragement ahead of their visit to London for the return.
The result was a welcome relief for Sarri following the crushing loss at Manchester City and the Europa League could well prove his salvation this season.
Chelsea were cruising in their Europa League tie with Malmo until a late goal by the Swedes
They should prove too strong for Malmo on Thursday and Chelsea remain the bookmakers’ favourites to go all the way in a competition they last won in 2013.
If Sarri can guide them to glory, returning Chelsea to the Champions League, then he may extend his stay into a second season.
But the Europa League field is a really strong one this season, with the likes of Napoli, Arsenal, Sevilla, Inter Milan and Valencia pushing them all the way.
Danger rating: 2/5
SUNDAY: CHELSEA vs MANCHESTER CITY
Carabao Cup final, Wembley Stadium
That six-goal drubbing wasn’t exactly the greatest omen for Chelsea’s rematch with City in the Carabao Cup final this Sunday.
While it provides a superb opportunity for Sarri to answer his critics by claiming the season’s first silverware, they’ll have to do it the hard way.
Pep Guardiola’s City side are on a superb run of form and have produced some breathtaking, free-scoring performances of late.
Manchester City have been in blistering form of late and are scoring goals for fun
They’ll view beating Chelsea to retain the Carabao Cup as the first step towards an unprecedented Quadruple this season and confidence will be flowing.
Sarri will have to produce a tactical masterclass to get the better of them, hope every player follows the game plan to the letter on the day and also require a bit of good fortune as well.
The good news is that he is unlikely to be sacked off the back of a loss to City if they have won the other games.
Danger rating: 5/5