Only lifting the Carabao Cup will do for Chelsea’s Pochettino

After nine years of waiting, Mauricio Pochettino has scratched the itch of reaching a cup final in England. But playing in next month’s Carabao Cup final won’t be enough for the Chelsea head coach — he has to win it.

Chelsea’s emphatic 6-1 semifinal second-leg win against Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge confirmed the Blues’ first Carabao Cup final since losing to Liverpool in 2022. Jurgen Klopp’s team will be their opponents again on Feb. 25 if they see off Fulham in Wednesday’s second leg at Craven Cottage. Liverpool lead 2-1 from the first leg. But while Chelsea have been cup final regulars in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup in recent years, Pochettino’s failure to deliver similar success during his 5½ years at Tottenham has always counted against him.

Aside from a Carabao Cup final defeat against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2015, followed by a UEFA Champions League final loss at the hands of Liverpool in Madrid four years later, Pochettino has a miserable record in knockout competitions, leaving aside his one Coupe de France title with Paris Saint-Germain in 2021.

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At Tottenham, Pochettino rarely gave the impression that he was taking the domestic cups seriously. His response to the accusation that he was less than committed to either cup was that the priority for Spurs was Champions League qualification, either by winning or finishing in the Premier League top four. So six attempts at the Carabao Cup with Spurs resulted in just one final, the defeat against Chelsea, while the best of five FA Cup campaigns were two losing semifinals.

Pochettino was able to pick and choose his priorities at Tottenham because the club didn’t have the resources, financially or with squad depth, to challenge on four fronts, but that is not the case at Chelsea.

Since being transformed by Roman Abramovich’s money following the Russian oligarch’s takeover in 2003, Chelsea have been serious contenders in every competition and they have won all of them more than once in the past 20 years. Abramovich’s departure as owner in 2022, following the freezing of his assets by the UK government as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, signalled a change of ownership, but the rules of engagement haven’t changed under Chelsea’s new American owners.

The club still demands success. But at times since the Abramovich sale was completed in May 2022, Chelsea have looked a million miles from success. Pochettino is their fourth manager in that time and £910 million has been spent on 25 new players — even more have left the club.

Chelsea still look unlikely trophy winners because Pochettino’s young team remains in a development stage, but they are slowly getting better and more consistent. This win was their fifth in six games in all competitions and Raheem Sterling, Enzo Fernández and Cole Palmer once again produced big performances as Chelsea cruised to victory.

Sterling created three first-half goals, Palmer scored twice and Fernandez embellished a dominant performance with a goal of his own. A Jonny Howson own goal and one apiece from Axel Disasi and Noni Madueke completed Chelsea’s rout before Morgan Rogers netted an 88th-minute consolation for Boro. So after so much upheaval and chaos at Chelsea, even during Pochettino’s six months in charge, the grey clouds are beginning to clear, and there is no better way to mark progress than by winning a major trophy.

But that applies perhaps more to Pochettino than Chelsea. Yes, Chelsea always want to win, but Pochettino needs to justify his status as one of the game’s top coaches by winning silverware. And just like producing exciting young teams, as he did at Spurs and Southampton before that, is not enough if the ultimate outcome does not result in a trophy.

If Chelsea face London neighbours Fulham at Wembley next month, they will be strong favourites to win, but Pochettino’s side will be underdogs if their opponents are Liverpool. Yet only Manchester City have won more trophies than Chelsea over the past 10 years, so no matter who Pochettino’s side take on at Wembley, they will do so with the expectation that accompanies all of the top clubs.

They have the talent within their team; trophy-winning experience in the form of Sterling, Palmer and Thiago Silva; and a coach with something to prove. This Chelsea team is nowhere near the finished article, but they are now just one win away from winning a trophy, and that is a good place for both the team and Pochettino to be in so soon after his arrival at the club last summer.

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