Chelsea have the parts to overcome Southampton in tight affair
Scarcely two months have passed since Jose Mourinho was dramatically sacked by Chelsea, but the period of time feels longer. The ire expressed by thousands of match-going Blues supporters at Mourinho's dismissal soon dissipated as the familiar fatherly figure of Guus Hiddink, parachuted in by owner Roman Abramovich in a bid to salvage a potentially disastrous season, got to work and began weaving his magic in the dressing room.
When it comes to remedying ills at Stamford Bridge, Hiddink is the best doctor there is. Not once, but twice now he has succeeded in galvanising the dressing room, remedying issues with the form of star players and transforming results. Chelsea are playing as a team again from defence, through midfield to attack.
Unbeaten in domestic competition since the veteran Dutchman took the helm, the Blues have also rediscovered the fine art of finding the back of the opposition's net while protecting their own. Three victories with a 5-1 score-line during the past four weeks (MK Dons, Newcastle United, Manchester City) coupled with sterling clean-sheet defensive displays away to Arsenal and Watford illustrate Chelsea's resurgence.
Critics might point to six Premier League draws that have occurred in the nine top-flight games Hiddink has overseen since his return to SW6, and they could also factor in the defeat away to Paris Saint-Germain to denigrate Chelsea's restoration -- but the bottom line is that the London club is in far better shape now than it was in the tumultuous months leading up to Mourinho's sacking.
The next challenge the affable Hiddink faces comes in the form of his equally likeable countryman Ronald Koeman, who is doing an outstanding job managing Southampton. Saturday's Premier League fixture at St. Mary's sees Chelsea take on a Saints side whose fortunes have also been transformed over the past couple of months.
Koeman's side have won five out of their last six league games, a sequence of results which has propelled the south coast club up to sixth place in the table, just one point behind Manchester United. Key to this success has been the resilience of Southampton's backline, which has not been breached during the impressive run.
Even if Chelsea's indefatigable creative sorcerer Willian has the opportunity to try his luck from a set piece, or talismanic striker Diego Costa finds himself played in on goal -- there remains the goalkeeping colossus that is Fraser Forster to negotiate the ball past. It's no coincidence that Forster's return to first team action from injury correlates precisely with Southampton's run of shut-outs, and the England stopper, with one eye on this summer's Euro 2016, will have his eye on another clean sheet.
A tight game seems in prospect, but Chelsea have sufficient quality in their ranks to have a real go at unlocking Southampton's mean defence, while ensuring that the Saints flair players are kept at bay. At the back, Hiddink has had his selection hand forced by the recent injuries to first choice central defensive-pairing Kurt Zouma and skipper John Terry. Interestingly enough, moving Branislav Ivanovic from right full-back into the middle to partner with Gary Cahill, recalled to the side because of the long term loss of Zouma, has worked out better than expected, with a further positive aspect being Cesar Azpilicueta replacing Ivanovic on the right and young Baba Rahman coming in to the side at left-back.
Since his £21.7 million summer move from Augsburg, the 21-year-old Baba had struggled to justify his transfer fee and failed to impress when given chances by Mourinho. Under Hiddink, however, the Ghana international has impressed.
The return to fitness of Terry means the Chelsea manager has a selection dilemma: Restore his captain to the side at the expense of either Cahill or Ivanovic; move the Serb back to the right flank and drop Azpilicueta; or follow this process but switch the Spaniard to the left and drop Baba. The alternative, of course, would be to bench Terry.
Also sitting in the dugout with whoever else misses out, though his form suggests he deserves a start, is a potential match winner for the Blues in the form of Bertrand Traore. Traore scored in each of Chelsea's recent 5-1 victories and the 20-year-old Burkino Faso international could be a telling weapon in Hiddink's armoury.
Elsewhere, the renaissance of John Obi Mikel since Hiddink's arrival makes the Nigerian's claims for inclusion hard to ignore -- and with Cesc Fabragas rediscovering his "magic hat" form, Eden Hazard suddenly remembering he's the current footballer of the year, Willian working wonders, and Costa scoring instead of slugging, Chelsea look a decent bet to come away from St Mary's with more than just a point.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco