Southampton 1 Chelsea 2
The style is very different, but Guus Hiddink believes he is beginning to see a crop of leaders emerge in his current Chelsea side that bear similar characteristics to the formidable group that inspired the interim manager’s 2009 FA Cup triumph with the club.
Then, as now, Hiddink was drafted in to rescue a failing season although the task confronting the Dutchman was arguably easier seven years ago, not least because had a core of battle-hardened players with the personalities to help turn things around.
Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba were certainly no shrinking violets, forming the backbone of the team during several years of success but as the squad has evolved, the mentality of the newer players has been questioned, not least during the alarming decline under Jose Mourinho this season.
Saturday’s victory at Southampton provided the latest evidence Hiddink is successfully turning things around and restoring some of the spirit that has been a feature of the club’s successes over the past decade or more.
The two-goal fightback in the last 15 minutes, started by Cesc Fabregas and finished by Branislav Ivanovic, after Shane Long had given the home side a 42nd-minute lead, was trademark Chelsea.
Having been accused of failing the club by supporters hurt by Mourinho’s departure, Fabregas, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard are playing prominent roles in the club’s revival while Ivanovic’s 88th-minute winning goal reinforced the sense the Serbian has assumed the role of leader in Terry’s continuing absence with a hamstring injury.
Ivanovic and Terry are the only survivors from Hiddink’s 2009 squad but the interim manager is convinced they are no longer alone in possessing the qualities needed to lead from the front.
“Ivanovic is not a big shouter, but the short commands he does and that’s what I like very much as a manager because what we do in training and team meetings I want to have it executed by my key players,” said Hiddink.
“That’s why I’m happy that players like Fabregas but also Oscar, who came in, is doing their job as well so it’s good to see that some players step up, not just in their personal performance but also organising tactically.
“Cesar Azpilicueta does a lot also in the coaching, Diego Costa in his way does a lot of coaching.
“I like Oscar, Willian, those guys who are gifted by nature that they also take command in this team.”
This victory extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run to 14 domestic games since Mourinho left, 13 of those with Hiddink at the helm.
Last season’s champions remain in 11th place but if they can avenge the first leg Champions League defeat to Paris Saint Germain when the teams meet again on March 9, and follow that up with victory over Everton in the FA Cup sixth round three days later, the campaign will assume a very different complexion.
After a poisonous December, the relationship between players and supporters appears restored, although Hiddink admits the onus was on his players to win back favour.
“Of course, the supporters were disappointed for half the season with what is going on and performances,” said the 69-year-old.
“The crowd is fully right to react as they reacted in the first two games or three games I was here.
“You cannot ask the crowd, ‘please, don’t think of what happened and the bad results’.
“The team has to show their desire to play again and then the crowd start supporting.”
Terry is again likely to be missing when Chelsea visit Norwich tomorrow and Hiddink admits the centre-back is cutting it fine to be fit to face PSG.
“It’s very, very tight,” he said.
“We’ll see how we react and if he needs a game we might organise a game, an intense game.”
Having opened the scoring with a delicate dink over Thibaut Courtois, Shane Long departed injured on the hour.
Worryingly for Martin O’Neill, Southampton manager Ronald Koeman confirmed a hamstring problem and the Tipperary man was due to be assessed yesterday.
SOUTHAMPTON (3-5-2): Forster 6; Van Dijk 7, Fonte 6, Bertrand 7; Cedric 6, Clasie 6, Davis 7, Romeu 7, Targett 6 (Ward-Prowse 89); Austin 6 (Mane 79,6), Long 8 (Pelle 69,6).
Subs not used: Stekelenberg,Yoshida, Tadic, Martina.
CHELSEA (4-2-3-1): Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Cahill 7, Ivanovic 7, Rahman 4 (Kenedy 45, 7); Fabregas 9, Mikel 7; Willian 6, Hazard 6 (Matic 90), Pedro 6 (Oscar 6); Costa 7.
Subs: Begovic, Remy, Traore, Loftus-Cheek.
Referee: M Atkinson
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved