On the back of Chelsea’s worst defeat in Premier League history, Maurizio Sarri faces a battle to galvanise his side for a season-defining fortnight.
The Blues meet Manchester United in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday night, Manchester City, who humiliated them 6-0 last weekend, in the EFL Cup final a week on Sunday, and high-flying Tottenham three days later.
But first up there is the small matter of Malmo in the Europa League round of 32, and if Chelsea are to get the two-legged tie off to a good start on Thursday they will have to do something they have failed to so far in 2019: win away from home.
Astonishingly, Chelsea’s record on the road since the turn of the year stands at: played four, lost four, scored none and conceded 13.
That form has seen Chelsea fall from fourth to sixth in the Premier League, behind Arsenal – also in Europa League action on Thursday against BATE Borisov – on goals scored.
Results, or lack of them, have seen Sarri come under intense scrutiny and on Sunday he was forced to fend off questions about his future just six months into the role, saying: “My job is always at risk.”
Chelsea’s fixture lists suggests they are not in crisis yet. Sarri could still land any of three trophies and get the team back into the top four. After all, they are only one point behind fourth-placed United and in a domestic cup final next week.
However, they held an 11-point advantage over United at the time of Jose Mourinho’s sacking just two months ago and the league form of the Red Devils under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may worry Chelsea fans ahead of the pair’s FA Cup clash.
The Blues have the chance to progress to the quarter-finals, where – as long as they avoid City – the winner should face a favourable draw, with the majority of Premier League sides, including the rest of the Big Six, already eliminated.
In the EFL Cup, Chelsea have reached the final after beating Tottenham on penalties last month but will come up against a City side who blew them away last weekend, scoring four times in the opening 25 minutes.
The odds are stacked against them after that result, although this same crop of players have shown they can beat Pep Guardiola’s men, having won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in December.
Sarri state of affairs
Chelsea’s crunch period comes amid unrest among some fans who have grown frustrated with the team’s lack of creativity and the related issue of Sarri disciple Jorginho’s minimal impact.
The former Napoli coach is said to have fought tooth and nail to bring another ex-pupil, Gonzalo Higuain, to the club in January, and while he impressed with a brace at home to Huddersfield he has been unable to prevent two hidings in his other two league outings: a 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth as well as that City thrashing.
The high manager turnover at Chelsea means that tension is rarely far from the surface, making it all the more remarkable that Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte was able to deliver a Premier League title followed by an FA Cup in his second season.
It was not enough to save him from the sack, though, and so perhaps for Sarri the cup runs may already prove to be too little too late, with Roman Abramovich not used to seeing his side embarrassed as they have been in their last two away games.
On the other hand, if there was ever a time for the Russian billionaire to change his approach and tolerate a struggling manager in pursuit of a long-term vision, then this may be it.
Uncertainty surrounds the futures of key players Eden Hazard, David Luiz, Pedro and Willian, Higuain and Mateo Kovacic are only on loan until the end of the season, albeit with options to buy, and Cesar Azpilicueta will be among those on the wrong side of 30 next season.
With change in the air this summer, will Abramovich allow the dogmatic Sarri the chance to rebuild the squad according to his idiosyncratic philosophy with a scope and freedom seldom afforded to his predecessors.
It seems a faint hope, though. The former banker’s confession that he did not understand how his side lost 6-0 at the weekend, following other heavy and damaging defeats, seem unlikely to have instilled faith among the Chelsea hierarchy.
If Sarri is to hold onto his job until next season, he may have to win his first major silverware as a manager. And if he is even to survive until the end of this season, then Chelsea’s response over the next two weeks looks likely to be vital.