Pochettino's subs silence his critics as Chelsea reach Wembley again


LONDON — Mauricio Pochettino’s stoppage-time celebration felt pointed for a reason. As Carney Chukwuemeka slotted in a low 92nd-minute finish to finally break Leicester City’s resistance, the Chelsea coach turned to shake his right arm in the direction of those Blues supporters located near the dugout.

Noni Madueke later added gloss to the score line with a fine strike, sealing a 4-2 FA Cup quarterfinal victory that ultimately sends Chelsea to Wembley, but much of Sunday afternoon felt like a Stamford Bridge referendum on Pochettino’s future.

Had there been a public vote in the second half, he may well have lost. Pochettino was greeted with chants of, “You don’t know what you’re doing” when he chose to introduce Chukwuemeka for Mykhailo Mudryk on 78 minutes, despite Raheem Sterling enduring the kind of nightmare afternoon that may take him some time to come back from.

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Sterling was eventually replaced four minutes from time with the score at 2-2, prompting boos for the England international — later mixed with applause from those wishing to remain supportive — as Chelsea badly laboured to beat Championship opposition reduced to 10 men for the final 17 minutes following Callum Doyle’s red card.

Pochettino could, therefore, be forgiven if he felt a high degree of satisfaction in Chukwuemeka and Madueke making such match-winning contributions on a day when the hostility toward him reached new levels.

“I am not the manager here to do what the people want,” Pochettino said. “Also, I am not stupid. I did it to go again. For me, I saw Mudryk. We analyse, he was tired and doing some stretching. We thought maybe he will not finish the game and we decide to go first for Mudryk and then for Raheem.

“That is because we need to see everything. We are professional. We want to win, but of course, completely understand the situation. That doesn’t mean that I agree. But look, we are going to support Mudryk, Raheem, and all the players in the squad.

“I not only ask the [fans] to trust me. They need to trust the club because in the end if I am here it is the decision of the club and they need to trust the project of the club, as well as me and the club. They need to trust that the club is doing what they think is good for the club and for the fans. It is about trusting everyone.”

Pochettino probably didn’t need a reminder of the tightrope he is currently walking, given recent weeks have seen fans voice their frustration at a team only truly consistent in their inconsistency, with some chanting for Jose Mourinho during their 2-2 draw at Brentford.

Sources have told ESPN that some of the sympathy within the club’s hierarchy towards Pochettino stems from internal data suggesting Chelsea have not got just reward for their performances this season. The more basic numbers were certainly in their favour: an expected goals total of 4.59 to 0.74, 26 shots to Leicester’s five and 59.9% possession.

But once again they only played in patches and almost entirely bereft of the authority that the top teams deliver on a weekly basis.

They were 2-0 up at halftime as smart work from Nicolas Jackson enabled Marc Cucurella to open the scoring on 13 minutes, before Sterling missed a 27th-minute penalty with an attempt revealing a severe lack of confidence, angering the locals given he took the spot kick off the prolific Cole Palmer.

It got worse a minute before halftime as he sidefooted well wide when clean through, although an uptick came moments later when Sterling turned provider for Palmer to convert from close range.

The fragility of this Chelsea team continues to reflect badly on Pochettino, however. He cannot necessarily be blamed for the kind of individual mistake that led to Axel Disasi inexplicably overhitting a simple backpass past Robert Sánchez to score a bizarre 51st-minute own goal, or the individual quality that saw Stephy Mavididi curl in a brilliant 62nd-minute equaliser for the visitors.

But the collective loss of control is his responsibility to address, and it happens far too often for it to be coincidental.

Pochettino had sympathy for Sterling’s plight, facing chants of “get him off” from incandescent home supporters after blazing a 75th-minute free kick so high it would have looked out of place at Twickenham.

“It is obvious, I cannot hide nothing,” Pochettino said. “The feelings weren’t good for him, but I am going to support him. Today is a great opportunity to support him. He has an unbelievable CV, a player who has played in big teams, experienced player.

“Of course, today he missed the penalty and some chances. But look, I am happy with him, we are going to support. I think the chance is to show we are building something. For sure, he is going to get the rhythm again that he needs to help the team.”

Somewhere within the madness, Palmer continues to keep his head. It was his delightful flick that created the opening for Chukwuemeka to strike the decisive blow. Palmer has now both scored and assisted in six different games for Chelsea in all competitions this season, more than any other Premier League player.

And Chelsea are at Wembley again with an opportunity to salvage a trophy from a turbulent campaign that has seen them trying to scramble into the top half of the table, uncertain of European qualification.

“Maybe I need to explain also to the fans,” Pochettino said. “We need to accept. It doesn’t mean that we agree or not agree. But we need to accept. All the fans in football live with expectation and always wanting the best for the club and the player. When you don’t match the expectation, that is the difficult thing for our fans to understand. I was talking also in the past: I am strong, I have no problem. We are going to keep moving in the same direction. Of course, we want to create a better atmosphere. I cannot lie.

“I hope next game our fans will be always unconditional in [being] behind the team because we are representing Chelsea. The players also, they want to give their best for the club and for the fans. We are in a process where we want to make our fans happy. I hope we can create until the end of the season, a good connection with the fans. I am not going to criticise them, because they are entitled to say what they want.”

At some point, Pochettino has to bring some calm to this chaos, otherwise it may end up consuming him.



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