Weblog: The football punter

Stamford Bridge battle may not be settled early

BBC1, 7.30pm Monday

The broadcasters have saved the best FA Cup fifth-round tie until last and Chelsea and Manchester United could make us wait even longer than expected to find out which team will claim the eighth quarter-final berth.

The tie has to be decided on the night after the Football Association scrapped replays a round earlier than last season, and there is a fair chance it will go the distance at Stamford Bridge as these Premier League heavyweights are difficult to separate.

This is the start of a potentially season and job-defining couple of weeks for Maurizio Sarri in the Blues hotseat, with many Chelsea supporters questioning the Italian's coaching methods following their 6-0 humiliation at Manchester City in the Premier League last time out.

Sarri was stunned by that performance and he must face the same opponents again in Sunday's Carabao Cup final, followed by a London derby against arch-rivals Tottenham which will be pivotal in the race to secure Champions League football at Stamford Bridge for next season.

Chelsea will no doubt be pleased to return to home comforts following their terrible road performances. They had lost four in a row away without scoring before they beat a sub-standard Malmo in the Europa League on Thursday. Sarri was able to rest Gonzalo Higuain and Eden Hazard from the start and still get a 2-1 victory.

This will be tougher but Chelsea have lost only once at home this season and they have conceded just three times in their last 12 matches at Stamford Bridge, keeping nine clean sheets in the process.

City and Tottenham have been defeated in that period, so not all of Sarri's work can be derided and maybe his devotion to playing a certain style of football will bring long-term benefits.

Sarri's problem is that Chelsea rarely think very far ahead and United were able to escape London with a point earlier this season when a last-gasp Ross Barkley goal denied the Red Devils victory in a 2-2 draw.

That was during the bad old days under Jose Mourinho and the mood has improved considerably under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer despite United deservedly losing 2-0 to Paris St-Germain in the Champions League at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

United were outclassed by PSG but fortunately for the Manchester men Chelsea are not as good as the French champions - and it remains the only defeat in 12 games for Solskjaer.

The injuries picked up by speedsters Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard will be of greater concern as they have added dynamism to United's counter-attacking prowess in recent months.

However, United have scored in every away match this season, and won at Spurs and Arsenal as well as drawing at Chelsea. 


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Match in Focus


Kazakhstan v Scotland

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Kazakhstan have conceded 89 goals in their last 40 qualification matches.
Expert verdict
Nearly 21 years have passed since the Tartan Army last followed Scotland to a major international tournament.However, there is a quiet confidence that the Scots can end that barren run. The Kazakhs are ranked 77 places below Scotland and have won only three of their last 40 major tournament qualifiers.