It shocked me to notice over the beginning of February, a cooling of the fans attitudes towards Guus Hiddink. Despite the fact the club were still to be beaten since the Dutchman’s reinstatement, his team selections, his conservatism in approach and the rising number of draws (especially at home) in the league, were beginning to give our recovery the sense of having begun to stall. I haven’t shared these frustrations for a moment. If the results still haven’t been remarkable, they’ve still been solid and improving; the individual form of almost all of the team’s stars has progressed markedly; late equalisers against Everton and Man Utd has shown that the side’s willingness/ability to dig our way out of difficult situations and improved immeasurably also.
Yesterday’s thrashing of Newcastle, who for once we were able to make look like the utter tripe which they are, I think was vindication for those who have stayed calm and optimistic with the way things have gone so far in the calendar year. The fact Steve McClaren’s side were abysmal takes away from the result a little bit, regardless, this was probably our most impressive win of the season. More important than the result was the way in which we scored the goals. Our pressing and pouncing on Newcastle’s poor passes was representative of the sharpness and opportunism which was one of, if not the defining trait of our title winning form. The sharp passing between Hazard and Pedro showed that they were both thankfully coming back into some form. The energy of Diego Costa’s performance, as he netted his seventh in eight league starts, showed his form happily looks to be continuing also.
Best, and most promising of all however, was the performance of Cesc Fabregas, the Spaniard whose lethargy and passivity in matches this year, which has been so emblematic of our struggles, finally looks to have rediscovered his golden touch, which made us not only such a formidable outfit last season, but also a beautiful attacking side to watch. The re-introduction of Mikel into the first XI has necessarily moved Cesc further forwards into a #10 role; withdrawn into his usual deeper midfield playmaking role yesterday he was able to show close to the extent of what his talent can offer. Orchestrating the play with lots of quick and careful angled passes into midfield, and with some a handful of gorgeous long balls to instigate counter-attacks, the likes of which Andrea Pirlo would have been proud of – I think Cesc, as well as the next permanent manager of the club (whoever it may be), could do worse than to look at the legendary Italian’s career as an example of how exactly to use of our #4 as he enters the final quarter of his professional career.
Courtois – Easy game. Could do nothing to stop Andros Townsend’s excellent late consolation. 6
Ivanovic – Moved seamlessly into the left centre half role after Terry went off injured. It looks like he’ll have to re-adjust quickly. 6
Cahill – Looking set for another long run in the side following Kurt Zouma’s horrid knee injury. Never the most talented but now a safe, experienced set of hands. 6
Terry – At a point where he seems (bizarrely) to be playing for his Chelsea career, our captain’s hamstring injury comes at the worst possible time. N/A
Azpilicueta – Like Ivanovic, moved seamlessly from left back to right back and made a fantastic assist for the fifth goal. 7
Matic – The Serb’s struggles have been widely commented on recently but I don’t think his performances have been so shocking. This was another decent showing. 6
Fabregas – MOTM – took full advantage of facing almost no midfield pressure for 90 minutes. 8
Pedro – Best 90 minute performance for Chelsea so far. Two very well taken goals. 7
Hazard – Still a way from his best, but getting ever closer. 6
Willian – His energy and commitment, even throughout a game which was effectively dead after 15 minutes, was frankly, soul-stirring. I love Willian. 7
Diego Costa – Another impressive and controlled goal-scoring performance. 7
The fact that our league season remains void of anything to play for I think will turn out to be helpful. Achieving a top four place remains all-but impossibile. As the bigger sides in the top half continue to struggle however, the possibility of even a fifth place finish could be attainable. But though every league game retains a level of importance, with the squad needing as much momentum as possible before the start of next season’s campaign, the only games of crucial importance left to play this year are in the cup competitions and the Champions League in particular.
Tuesday’s game against Paris SG represents the deciding tie in a trilogy of match ups over the previous three seasons, in which neither side has dominated, and which on both occasions, the losing team will have felt immensely hard done by. The narrative of the fixture is of a somewhat different nature this time around however. The Parisians are as dominant as they have ever been, currently leading the French League by more than 20 points and, though still yet to ever make a Champions League semi-final, their reputation as serious players on the continent is now well established – doubtless they will consider themselves favourites to progress. Chelsea meanwhile are probably as un-threatening of a prospect as they have been in Europe for more than a decade. Though not to be taken lightly, progression to the quarter finals this year would represent somewhat of an upset.
Such is the dominance of Laurent Blanc’s side that they were able to rest half of their likely XI ahead of this week’s first leg. Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to lead French side with goal-scoring stats worthy of his reputation as of one Europe’s greatest and most consistent centre forwards of all time. Angel Di Maria also has got his career back on track with an impressive early record in French football. Along with the talented Lucas and Blaise Matuidi (who I think is one of the ten best all round midfielders in Europe), the Argentine forms part of an impressive and dangerous looking supporting cast.
Hiddink has no choice but to go defensive. Mikel and Matic will certainly start with Cesc Fabregas probably not too much further forward, as we will look to stay compact and break quickly with Hazard and Willian, serving Costa, who will need to be at his best if he is to serve as a target man, against Luiz and Silva, two of the most powerful and most talented defensive headers of the ball in the world. Although. it’s crucial we aren’t cautious to the point which we were, when we were eliminated to the French outfit on away goals last season, where we eschewed the chances we had to take control of the game and ended up throwing it away.
Progression will require a defensive performance to match our greatest in this competition, but the opportunity to turn in another heroic display should be wetting the appetites of these players as well as the fan base. We play the underdog well in this competition (as well as anybdy) and an upset against one of Europe’s elite could be exactly what Guus needs to turn his slow, solid turnaround into a restorative operation of the very highest order.
Enjoy the game.