FOR Roman Abramovich, a man used to getting what he wants, when he wants it, the prospect of seeing the man he craves above all others to become Chelsea’s next manager slip through his fingers must be almost too much to bear.
Guus Hiddink has only been residing in west London a matter of weeks, contentedly sweeping up the mess left by his predecessors in his role as the world’s best-paid caretaker, but he has already done enough to ensure he will be sorely missed by his employer when he finally puts down his broom.
Ghosts have been exorcised from every corner of Stamford Bridge. Anfield, an arena which left even the Special One spooked on European occasions, was conquered so completely in last week’s Champions League quarter-final first leg that tonight’s rematch should be little more than a formality; perpetual malcontents such as Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack are smiling, scoring and swaggering again; the Treble, a bad joke three months ago, is now the talk of the pubs and bars of the King’s Road.
For all this, Hiddink deserves credit. Of all the managers Abramovich has employed, the Dutchman looks the one most likely to tick every box on his lengthy checklist. He blends their best qualities — Claudio Ranieri’s bonhomie, Jose Mourinho’s competitive drive, Avram Grant’s political nous and Luiz Felipe Scolari’s international renown — while avoiding their pitfalls. It is to Chelsea’s immense good fortune that Hiddink was available to ride to Chelsea’s rescue, and their breathtaking bad luck that he has shown absolutely no desire to take the job on a permanent basis.
The 63-year-old has continually reiterated his commitment Russia, at least until qualification for the 2010 World Cup, and while even a man of his cast-iron resolve might waver if he is parading the Champions League around Rome’s Stadio Olimipico in six weeks’ time, Chelsea appear resigned to commencing yet another managerial search in the summer.
The flip side to Hiddink’s status is that his focus can be unashamedly immediate. Egos can be bruised and diplomacy abandoned, regardless of the long-term implications. Either way, Hiddink will still be walking away, his managerial reputation either in tact or significantly enhanced, on 31 May.
“I am not close to the players and, as a manager, I should not be their friend,” Hiddink said, as if to emphasise the point. “I have to take decisions against some players — they might be out of shape, or it might be for tactical reasons, whatever.
“I like to have a very direct, openrelationship with my players and I don’t play any games with them. In my opinion a manager should not be having bonds and friendships with his squad anyway. That’s maybe for after we have done our jobs.”
The first of those tasks should also be by far the most straightforward. Chelsea have never conceded three goals on home soil in the Champions League and only a capitulation on that seismic scale will be sufficient to ensure they do not progress to the semi-finals and a likely meeting with Barcelona, who are even more comfortably placed in their tie with Bayern Munich.
Hiddink will ensure there is not even a whiff of complacency in the home dressing room this evening. He described how conceding three goals in eight minutes to Bolton last Saturday had been “like an alarm clock going off” and the absence of John Terry, banned after being booked in the first leg, should focus minds.
“There is no such reason to be complacent, whatever the team you are playing against but especially Liverpool, given what they did in the past,” Hiddink reasoned, in reference to the Merseysiders’ ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ in the 2005 final against Milan.
“We want to go out and win, so this will not be a cautious game. It is not in both teams’ soul. But we must be careful: a lack of concentration and you can have problems.”
There appears scant chance of Chelsea’s worst fears being realised tonight. Instead, it is the club’s post-Hiddink which should be causing most concern in Stamford Bridge’s corridors of power.
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