Under-pressure Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri set aside recent struggles to guide his team into the last 16 of the Europa League.
Second-half goals from Olivier Giroud, Ross Barkley and Callum Hudson-Odoi earned the Blues a 3-0 second-leg win over Swedish club Malmo as they comfortably progressed 5-1 on aggregate.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a closer look at how Sarri fared amid increasing scrutiny.
Chelsea supporters joined Manchester United fans’ chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” during their FA Cup clash on Monday, adding their disdain for Sarri’s preferred tactics and system, while also singing for Frank Lampard, the club’s record goalscorer who is now Derby manager and could be a possible successor. Malmo’s boisterous travelling fans drowned out any negativity from the home terraces in the first half, although the half-time whistle prompted boos at a far from satisfactory first period. Giroud, Barkley and Hudson-Odoi helped keep a lid on any dissenting voices after the break.
Sarri on Wednesday described his favoured 4-3-3 system as a “false problem” in a show of defiance to the supporters who voiced an expletive-laden objection to the ‘Sarri-ball’ possession-based system. He has previously said he has no intention of altering his tactics. “Why? First of all I want to do Plan A very well, I think,” he said on February 1. “I am a dreamer, I want to play my football.” Sarri stuck by Sarri-ball here, with Mateo Kovacic in the Jorginho role as central playmaker. N’Golo Kante was again deployed on the right side of midfield.
Dressed in his customary tracksuit and a hooded coat, Sarri often appeared agitated on the touchline, particularly during an uninspiring and pedestrian-paced first half. He spent most of the opening period pensively pacing his technical area, regularly venting his displeasure at his players while desperately trying to pass on instructions. His backroom staff was once again a man light as assistant Gianfranco Zola, who was also absent for Monday’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United, continues to suffer following gallstone surgery. Relief appeared to be Sarri’s overwhelming emotion after Giroud’s 55th-minute tap-in, while Barkley’s fine free-kick and Hudson-Odoi’s low finish prompted little reaction.
Given the inferior opposition and the first-leg lead, this was a tie Chelsea were expected to ease through, in spite of current struggles. While a shock European exit would have piled even more pressure on the under-fire Italian, progression does little, if anything, to assuage dissatisfaction at Stamford Bridge. The performance was far from convincing and tougher tests undoubtedly lie ahead. Sunday’s Carabao Cup final with Manchester City – a fortnight after the Blues’ 6-0 thrashing at the Etihad Stadium – followed by next week’s Premier League clash with top-four rivals Tottenham will have a far bigger bearing on Sarri’s fate.