The next pavement slab in Chelsea’s road to recovery under Guus Hiddink has been laid, with a nervy FA Cup victory over Scunthorpe but their performance suggests the route ahead is not yet clear of obstacles.
Goals from Diego Costa and substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek ensured Chelsea reached the fourth round and began a run of three matches in a row at Stamford Bridge with an all-important victory — only their fifth at home in domestic competitions all season. Next up is West Brom on Wednesday and Everton on Saturday — before their recovery is fully tested by a trip to Arsenal a week later.
At the minute, the best you can say is that Hiddink has steadied the ship sufficiently to suggest it has been a solid start under new management; his record now reading four matches unbeaten since arriving back in west London, five if you include a win over Sunderland which took place with him in the stands but not yet appointed after Jose Mourinho’s controversial exit.
Hiddink said: “We are determined to get silverware at the end. It was not an easy game, and we didn’t expect it to be.
“You could say Scunthorpe made us shiver and we showed some vulnerabilities in the second half, that’s true. We scored a beautiful goal but got a little bit sloppy in finishing the game off. So as long as it was 1-0, the threat was real.
“But we are still in the FA Cup, we are still aiming for fourth place in the Premier League — although it will be difficult — and we are still in the Champions League.”
When it comes to cup matches, of course, the only real measuring stick is how far you go in the competition, so on that basis, Chelsea have a right to be happy. True, there were nervy moments — League One side Scunthorpe had a strong penalty shout in the second half and hit the bar late on — but the record books will say Chelsea made it through nevertheless.
There has been plenty written about Premier League clubs fielding weakened teams and devaluing this famous old competition; in fairness to the Blues that has rarely , been the case at Stamford Bridge.
The club has cup history, from the winning team of 1970 to the new breed of 1997 and 2000 and the modern heroes, winners in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2012. Chelsea were the last winners of the trophy at the old Wembley and the first at the new stadium; so, as John Terry pointed out in his programme notes: “This cup has always been special to Chelsea.” Ironically, Terry was one of the few first team regulars omitted against Scunthorpe, on the bench as Branislav Ivanovic took the armband. But Chelsea did field most of their first-choice selection, including Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa.
There were murmurings that perhaps Hiddink could have given young players a chance — even the highly-rated Loftus-Cheek was not a starter. But you can’t have it both ways — Chelsea are taking the FA Cup seriously and their team-sheet proved it.
The decision seemed justified after 13 minutes when Ivanovic whipped in a clever cross and Costa stretched to sneak the ball past goalkeeper Luke Daniels for 1-0.
Cesc Fabregas and Pedro both went close, while Oscar curled a shot wide when clean through. But Chelsea grew lazy as the half wore on, allowing the Iron a few half-chances, Kurt Zouma producing an excellent tackle when needed and Asmir Begovic saving from David Mirfin.
The second half was even more nervy, and even more ragged, as Chelsea alarmingly lost their way. Scunthorpe claimed, with some justification, a penalty when the excellent Kevin van Veen was clipped by Ramires — and there was a period when, with Chelsea rattled, they had a chance of an upset.
That ended, however, when substitute Loftus-Cheek (on at half-time for Oscar) tucked away a Cesar Azpilicueta cross with a sweet left-foot finish from 12 yards. Up in the posh seats, owner Roman Abramovich celebrated wildly as his decision to sack Jose Mourinho continues to pay.
Scunthorpe did come on on strong and were unfortunate not to leave London with at least a consolation goal. Manager Mark Robins said: “We felt the penalty was nailed on so when Loftus-Cheek scored for 2-0 that was a big moment. After that we tried to get a goal but it wasn’t to be. But it’s been a fantastic week for us and I’m proud of the players.”
Chelsea fans, who have been anything but proud of their players so far this season, look forward to a time when they can say the same and on this evidence there is a way to go. But results, at least, show Hiddink is getting there. Game by game.
Begovic 6, Ivanovic 6, Cahill 5, Zouma 7, Azpilicueta 6; Ramires 6, Fabregas 5; Pedro 5 (Kenedy 71; 6), Oscar 6 (Loftus-Cheek 46; 7), Willian 6; Costa 7 (Traore 85).
Courtois, Baba, Mikel, Terry.
Daniels 6; Clarke 6, Wallace 6, Mirfin 7, Laird 6; Bishop 6, Ness 7; Wiliams 6 (Adelakan 79; 6), Dawson 8 (King 79; 6), Madden 6, Van Veen 8 (Wootton 81; 5).
Anyon, Wiseman, McAllister, Canavan.
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