Thursday 22 February 2018

Hiddink stays calm despite signs Chelsea cracks are reopening

Diego Costa - wearing a protective mask - challenges Alexandre Pato during Chelsea training yesterday. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Diego Costa - wearing a protective mask - challenges Alexandre Pato during Chelsea training yesterday. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink at yesterday’s press conference in Paris. Photo Lee Smith/Reuters

Mark Ogden

It had all been so serene for Chelsea and Guus Hiddink since the Dutchman returned last December to extinguish the fires set alight by Jose Mourinho, yet just as the serious business of the Champions League returns to centre stage, smoke is beginning to appear through the cracks once again.

The loss to injury of his two first-choice centre-halves, John Terry and Kurt Zouma, is certainly poor timing, yet Eden Hazard's ill-advised flirtation with tonight's round of 16 opponents Paris Saint-Germain is a preventable distraction Hiddink and his team could do without.

January signing Alexandre Pato, named in the Champions League squad in place of the perennially injured Radamel Falcao, remains unfit and unavailable, so Chelsea's interim manager prepares for tonight's first leg at Parc des Princes with more problems than he has been forced to encounter since taking charge of the club for a second time two months ago.

Yet while his conspiratorial predecessor would look behind curtains and around corners for reasons to mutter darkly about obstacles in his way, Hiddink's approach is to shrug his shoulders and focus on the positive possibilities.

Hazard's comments about PSG were neatly rebuffed with a swift reminder to the player that his current form does little to merit such eye-fluttering towards the French champions, while Terry's absence, with a strained hamstring tendon, is a blow, but one which Hiddink insists Chelsea must simply overcome.

"Of course, not having John is a bit of a setback," Hiddink said. "He's a leader, but I'm not the type of coach to moan and moan. We have to go on. The players who will replace him - I have complete faith in them."

Hiddink's faith, as opposed to Mourinho's often critical approach, has been the balm that has enabled Chelsea to mount a 12-game unbeaten run under the former PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid coach. The touch is lighter, the mood is brighter and even Diego Costa, football's No 1 raging bull, has replaced tantrums with goals as Hiddink's personality has seeped into the squad.

But the true test of Chelsea's progress will come against Laurent Blanc's team here in Paris tonight. PSG will be buoyed by last season's 10-man triumph at Stamford Bridge at the same stage of the competition, with the Ligue 1 leaders relishing the opportunity to show on the biggest stage that their 24-point lead at the top of the table is due to their quality rather than their domestic rivals' inadequacies.

"Everyone thinks we are going to win the domestic league, and that we are expected to win every cup match, scoring four goals each game, but the Champions League is the real judgement," Blanc said yesterday. "We are against higher clubs, elite clubs, but we are prepared for these games. We've proved that."

PSG have lost just once in any competition - a group stage defeat against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu - since losing to Barcelona in last season's quarter-finals, but Chelsea's recent return to form has given Hiddink optimism that his team can not only overcome the French leaders, but even challenge for success in the competition.

"If you see where we are now and where PSG are now, they are building a very strong team and dominating the French league completely," Hiddink said. "A big club has to win the Champions League, but we are in a similar situation.

"The league didn't start well this year, and we've had some recovery from December up to now, but we're desperate to get into the next round of the Champions League. It's a big test for us to get into the next round. It's 50-50, and I hope we can do something to swing it to our advantage.

"But for us, it's about winning the Champions League, not looking just to get back into it next year. You have so many good teams, though, it's very difficult. But it's beautiful to win a big, big cup."

For Hiddink, his return to Chelsea also offers him a personal shot at redemption in a competition that has been cruel to him since he guided PSV to the European Cup in 1988.

The performance of the referee Tom Henning Ovrebo during the 2009 semi-final against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, when the Catalans proceeded to the final thanks in no small part to the Norwegian official's handling of the game, remains etched on Hiddink's mind, but if this proves to be his swansong season in the Champions League, he is not using it as a chance to make up for the events of seven years ago.

"No, I don't feel unfinished business," Hiddink said. "I get reminded of it now, when we were kicked out and the way we were kicked out, everyone can see, but I don't go back. The years have gone by. It's history. It's nice for contemplations on Christmas Eve, but it's the past. We have to go on."

Forget the past and look to the future. It is a philosophy that is serving Hiddink well once again at Chelsea.

Paris SG v Chelsea, live, TV3/BT Sport Europe , 7.45

Irish Independent

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