Case for Guus Hiddink strengthens as Chelsea eye Europe
Chelsea's persuasive Premier League revival under interim manager Guus Hiddink continued Tuesday night with a win over basement battlers Norwich City at Carrow Road. It was the London club's third successive win in the top flight, and the Blues remain unbeaten in domestic competition since Hiddink replaced Jose Mourinho in December.
Chelsea have 10 league games still to play and, as the business end of the season approaches, if current form is maintained, there is a palpable sense of belief among Blues supporters that the team could propel itself into contention to qualify for Europe.
Such optimism would have been laughed at a couple of months ago, but Hiddink has clearly galvanised the Stamford Bridge dressing room. Chelsea have the purposeful swagger of a team enjoying their football and positive results are a direct consequence of this.
Speaking after the Norwich game, Hiddink highlighted Chelsea's steadily improving position. "We must set a new target and see what we can do in the direction of Europe. We have to keep on winning."
Chelsea, having played 28 games, currently occupy eighth place in the Premier League. Five points behind fifth-placed Manchester United and eight behind Manchester City, who are fourth. United have one game in hand over the Blues, City two.
Making up the difference may seem a tall order, but it's worth considering that at the time of Mourinho's sacking (Dec. 17) Chelsea were 16th in the Premier League -- 11 points off then-fifth place Tottenham Hotspur and 14 points off Man United who were fourth at the time.
Belief and momentum are vital now, and Chelsea under Hiddink have both in abundance. Home fixtures against Stoke City, West Ham United, Man City, Spurs and Leicester City will hold no fear for the Blues, despite the current standings of the latter three. Meranwhile, away trips to Liverpool, Aston Villa, Swansea City, Bournemouth and Sunderland look a likely source of points if away form can be maintained.
Champions League qualification is the Holy Grail, and were Hiddink to succeed in what looked like an impossible quest at Christmas, the clamour among supporters for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to extend the Dutchman's stay at Stamford Bridge would reach a deafening crescendo.
The 69-year old Hiddink has often hinted that he will retire at the end of the season, but with Chelsea still to appoint a "long-term" successor to Mourinho, and plenty of questions being asked about the suitability of the current favourite candidate -- Italy national coach Antonio Conte -- it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Abramovich could persuade the Blues' current saviour to stay in London a while longer.
The fact that Hiddink has blooded younger players and straightened out the heads of the senior members of the Chelsea squad, many of whom appeared to have lost the will to play under Mourinho, will be at the forefront of Abramovich's mind as much as it is on the players -- and the supporters for that matter.
Bertrand Traore, Kenedy and Baba Rahman have all been given chances that would have not realistically materialised under Mourinho. Also, Ruben Loftus-Cheek has recently been signed to a new five-year deal to stay at the Bridge. Meanwhile, the likes of Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, Branislav Ivanovic and Eden Hazard have been re-energised by Hiddink.
Kenedy and Traore both started against Norwich. Both players repaid the faith Hiddink placed in them -- almost immediately in the case of the 20-year old Brazilian Kenedy, who scored the fastest Premier League goal of the season when netting after just 39 seconds. Traore, who has scored several times when coming off the bench for Chelsea already this year, laid on the pass which afforded Costa the opportunity to double the Blues' lead at Carrow Road. It was the Brazil-born Spain international's eighth strike in the past 10 league games, matches in which he has also provided four assists.
Such developments are more than just noteworthy -- they are significant. The positive vibe and attendant results that Hiddink has been able to garner in a comparatively short space of time at Stamford Bridge highlight the importance of having a man in charge who understands and knows how to oil the cogs that make up complicated Chelsea machine. Speaking recently, Hiddink said, "I feel fit, I feel fresh and, every morning, I go with a smile. I love to go to Cobham, to the training field."
That's precisely the spirit the Blues need to percolate throughout the club on a long-term basis. Be it as manager, in an advisory capacity, director of football, call it what you will, Abramovich must find a way to keep Hiddink involved at Stamford Bridge beyond the end of this season so that his calming influence and knowledge can be bestowed on the next hopeful who takes up the challenge of managing Chelsea.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gate17marco.