Grand ambition might have become one of Chelsea’s unique selling points, but for the English Premier League club’s last four managers it has also become their fatal flaw.
Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari — all highly decorated managers boasting proven track records — have all proved unable to deliver the swaggering success that Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich craves.
Now Guus Hiddink, another member of world soccer’s coaching elite, has accepted what increasingly appears an impossible job.
In Hiddink’s favor, expectations at Stamford Bridge have arguably never been lower in the Abramovich era. The London club are all but out of contention for the Premier League title and, while Abramovich would dearly love to add the one trophy missing from his cabinet, the Champions League, at the end of the season, the priority is ensuring a top-four finish and qualification for next year’s competition.
To that end, today’s trip to third-placed Aston Villa, the season’s surprise package, is crucial.
Hiddink, put in charge of Chelsea until the end of the season whilst remaining manager of Russia’s national side, has only been in charge of training at Chelsea’s Surrey headquarters since the start of the week, but already the Dutchman is having an impact.
While the club’s senior players were unhappy at Scolari’s laissez-faire approach to practice sessions — which, they claimed, left them lacking the necessary physical and mental edge demanded by a title challenge — Hiddink’s sessions have been short, sharp and intense.
“There are new styles and methods,” captain John Terry said.
“He has come in and changed it, and we have looked sharp over the last few days,” he said. “He’s changed the pace. He has got his methods and tactics which he wants to get across to us. He wants us to apply pressure more, play higher up the pitch. He just wants to do it his way.”
“Chelsea asked me to help out until the end of the season,” Hiddink said at his first media conference with Chelsea yesterday. “I have my work with Russia, which I will fulfill. I have just done it because of the strong links between the Chelsea owner and the Russian federation.”
The British media had suggested that Hiddink could stay longer and bookmakers made him favorite to be in charge for the first game of next season, but the former Netherlands and South Korea manager said that won’t happen.
“I will help out to the end of the season, only to the end of the season,” Hiddink said.
Defeat by Villa would leave Martin O’Neill’s side five points clear of their rivals, while fifth-placed Arsenal, boosted by the return of fit-again players, could be just two points adrift by the end of today’s matches.
Chelsea showed character and quality in overturning a one-goal deficit in last week’s FA Cup tie with Watford to book a place in the quarter-finals, while Villa have showed tell-tale signs of wobbling.
They suffered their first defeat in 16 domestic games in an FA Cup tie at Everton last week, while the Midlands club’s hopes of UEFA Cup progress were dented by CSKA Moscow on Wednesday, with the Russian side earning a 1-1 draw.
The defeat at Goodison Park prompted O’Neill to hold a team meeting in a bid to breathe new life into his players and, within Villa Park at least, there is a resolve to last the course this season.