Having lost their way under the former manager, a comprehensive dismantling of Crystal Palace offered a clear sign the London club is beginning to rediscover at least some of the qualities that made them champions.
If Mourinho was watching events at Selhurst Park, he will have done so through his fingers. The same players who under-performed so woefully during the opening months of the season look as though they have woken up since Guus Hiddink took the helm.
Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas — previously singled out for hostile treatment by the Stamford Bridge crowd who blamed the pair, together with Eden Hazard, for Mourinho’s departure — were close to their best with Costa setting up Oscar for the opening goal and completing the victory with his side’s third.
In between, the consistently impressive Willian struck an excellent 20-yard effort as Chelsea recorded only their second away league win of the season, and their first since August. The fact the Palace had risen to fifth place this week only reinforced the feeling this win could prove significant.
Since Mourinho was sacked in the wake of the defeat to Leicester City, his former side have recorded two victories — the first with Steve Holland at the helm — and two draws, including last Monday’s scoreless stalemate at Manchester United. They remain in the bottom half of the table, in 14th place, but this display suggests they are on the rise.
“This was the Chelsea of last year, the football was first class and we kept the ball in tough conditions,” said captain John Terry.
“A new year, a new start, we just have to keep winning games now. We are delighted and it is the feeling we want.
“Guus has been great since he has come in. It was unfortunate what happened but he has come in and picked everyone up. We are where we are, we have not dwelt on it. If we can put together a run of games who knows, hopefully we can go a long way.”
After the season they have had, Terry’s enthusiasm was perhaps understandable. Hiddink, though, offered a more cautious note, particularly when considering his team’s targets this season. “Do not go over the top,” he said. “It is a first win after a worrying period with two draws so the team desperately needed the win and it was convincing.
“Everyone knows we have a lot of quality in our team, but sometimes champions have a tendency to be complacent and it can be difficult to get back and then wonder why we were champions. There is a long way to go, mathematically the possibility of Champions League is still there. The league is so strong but as long as we play like we did today I will be happy.”
The failings that have marred Chelsea’s season were well hidden, with Hiddink’s side withstanding early Palace pressure to take control in the 29th minute. Fabregas’ well-weighted pass took out Damien Delaney and freed Costa on the right hand side of the box. The striker opted against shooting, instead pulling the ball back for Oscar to roll home.
It was as easy as it was incisive and appeared to drain Palace’s confidence. Alan Pardew’s side were missing key players, in particular injured pair Yannick Bolasie and Connor Wickham and the suspended Yohan Cabaye, but that does not explain their capitulation.
More, it was the quality of Chelsea’s play with the outstanding John Obi Mikel offering a more convincing performance in front of the back four than Nemanja Matic has managed in recent weeks.
Hiddink’s side moved the ball with confidence and it was notable the forward players moved into space with more conviction than they have done.
The second goal came on the hour, and Costa finished from close range six minutes later after Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey parried Willian’s low shot, completing a satisfactory afternoon that was marred only by Hazard’s early withdrawal with a groin problem.
“You saw their class come through, the story changed, they stepped on and we couldn’t get going,” said Pardew. “We got away from our game-plan and started forcing things. 3-0 is an unlikely scoreline for us this season, we have been in games right until the last minute. We have a lot of key players missing. They will be massive for us when they come back.”
Hennessey 5; Ward 6, Dann 5, Delaney 5, Souare 5; McArthur 6, Jedinak 4 (Ledley 66, 5); Lee 7 (Williams 78, 6), Zaha 7, Puncheon 5; Campbell 5 (Chamakh 66, 6).
Courtois 6; Ivanovic 6, Zouma 6, Terry 8, Azpilicueta 7; Mikel 9, Fabregas 8; Willian 8, Oscar 7 (Matic 87), Hazard 6 (Pedro 15,7); Costa 7.
Begovic, Rahman, Ramires, Traore, Loftus-Cheek