Chelsea might rotate for midweek clash vs. Norwich as injuries mount
Chelsea's compelling revival under interim manager Guus Hiddink shows no sign of abating, particularly on the domestic front. Since Hiddink took the helm at Stamford Bridge, the Blues remain unbeaten in the Premier League and have progressed to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Saturday's battling 2-1 win over Southampton at St. Mary's made it 11 games since Chelsea tasted defeat in the top flight, and a midweek road trip to face relegation-threatened Norwich City should hold no perils for the resurgent London club.
At Southampton, Hiddink retained the same starting XI that had served him well in the preceding weekend's thumping 5-1 FA Cup victory over Manchester City at the Bridge, but Pedro's early hamstring injury at the weekend means there will be at least one name change on the Chelsea team sheet at Carrow Road -- Oscar could earn a start against Norwich. Against Southampton, Hiddink deployed the Brazilian midfielder in a central role with Eden Hazard and Willian either side and the Dutchman could retain the same template against the Canaries.
Much has been much made of Hiddink's fatherly style of management and the way he has restored the confidence and positive mental attitude of key players in the Blues team. If recent Chelsea performances are any to go by, Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, John Obi Mikel and Branislav Ivanovic have been the key beneficiaries, however there can be no denying the fact that Hiddink does not suffer fools gladly.
Witness the ruthless half-time substitution of Chelsea left-back Baba Rahman. The 21-year old Ghana international, guilty of a gross error of judgement when heading the ball directly into the path of Southampton striker Shane Long who raced away to open the scoring for the Saints, was hauled off at the break and replaced by Kenedy.
After the game, Hiddink didn't mince his words when talking about his decision substitute Baba. "I don't want to make a fake injury. I took him off because of the error," said the Dutchman. "He has to cope with that. He was very down in the locker room about his mistake, but we have to make decisions like we did."
Hiddink's forthright words were somewhat surprising given that Baba was one of the players whose confidence had been knocked by Mourinho. A £21.7 million summer signing from Augsburg, Rahman had been largely overlooked by the Blues' former manager and had only just started to get a run in Chelsea's first team as a result of the recent injuries to Kurt Zouma and John Terry that forced Hiddink to shuffle.
Moving Ivanovic into the middle to partner Gary Cahill, and switching Cesar Azpilicueta from left-back to right-back, allowed for the inclusion of Baba and Chelsea have looked more solid and mobile down the flanks as a result. Rahman has played well, defending stoutly and getting forward well to make some accurate crosses. Clearly he needed games to build his confidence and was benefitting from the experience of being in the team, so it remains to be seen quite how Hiddink's brazen scapegoating will affect the youngster's morale.
"He has to recover, but you cannot always wait," said Hiddink of Baba when speaking ahead of the Norwich game. Given the Dutchman also indicated that he would wait and see how Terry "reacts after training this week," it's possible that Chelsea's backline at Carrow Road would mirror the one that completed the Southampton game.
In his pre-march presser, and perhaps with a wary eye on next week's must-win Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain, Hiddink also hinted at the "possibility" that Costa might be rested this week. The loss of both Pedro and Terry to hamstring injuries served as a timely reminder of the recurring problems Costa has endured. "We must be careful with some players that they are not going over the top."
Should Hiddink elect to rest Costa or restrict his game time, Bertrand Traore would relish the prospect of ruffling the Canaries' feathers. The 20-year-old has impressed when coming off the bench to score in recent games against Newcastle United in the league and MK Dons and Manchester City in the FA Cup and, right now, Hiddink clearly rates the striker ahead of recent loan signing Alexandre Pato who could finally be fit enough for a place at least on the bench against Norwich.
"I'm happy with the progress of Traore," said the interim Blues boss. "Although he's a young guy and the others might have more status, I'm not just looking at that."
Given the significance of the PSG match and the fact that Chelsea's Premier League status is assured, Hiddink is wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to team selection. If Costa is rested, life certainly won't be made any easier for Norwich -- indeed it could be made a whole lot worse. Traore looks a world-class player while Pato will be desperate for the chance to prove himself in the Premier League.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gate17marco.