Chelsea season over if Blues lose to Everton in FA Cup
Saturday's FA Cup quarterfinal at Everton provides Chelsea with the chance to continue their quest for a trophy in what has been a calamitous season.
The Blues, dumped out of the Champions League by Paris St-Germain this week, are a pale shadow of the side that dominated English football last season. Everton will go into the cup tie confident they can progress to the semifinals at the first time of asking.
Guus Hiddink has won all six of his FA Cup matches in charge of Chelsea, but the fact that one of them was against Everton in the 2009 final, the Dutchman's final game in his first stint as temporary Blues boss, will be a profound source of motivation for the Merseysiders, whose fans will be vocal from the start in support of Roberto Martinez's team.
If revenge and the prospect of a Wembley semifinal weren't big enough incentives for Everton, leading their line will be prolific scorer and Chelsea cast-off Romelu Lukaku. The hulking 22-year-old Belgian international's tally of 59 goals in 116 games for the Toffees makes a mockery of Jose Mourinho's decision to dispense with his services at Stamford Bridge. Although the Portuguese has since been sacked, Lukaku will need little encouragement to be at the top of his game.
Inspiration and perspiration will be key drivers in determining the outcome of the tie, and Hiddink will need to summon every ounce of his vast experience as a coach and manager to make the right call when it comes to naming Chelsea's starting XI.
Friday's news that John Terry has come through training unscathed and is fit enough to be included in Chelsea's squad at Goodison is a huge plus. Terry's do-or-die attitude and influence has been sorely missed during his injury lay-off, and should he be able to lead the ranks it be a fillip for Blues supporters who know their beloved "captain, leader, legend" will give his all for the club.
The same could not be said of Eden Hazard, who limped off toward the end of Chelsea's midweek home defeat to PSG to a chorus of boos from sections of the crowd disgruntled with what they perceive to be an ongoing lack of commitment. Hazard may have been struggling with an injury, but the Belgium international's decision to swap shirts with PSG midfielder Angel Di Maria at half-time ensured there was little sympathy for his predicament.
Hiddink has advised that Hazard is "desperate to participate in the team performance," at Everton. A year ago, such news would have been well-received by Chelsea supporters but Hazard's abject failure to replicate last season's form -- coupled with stories that continue to circulate about him leaving Stamford Bridge in the summer -- mean many fans would rather see Hiddink exclude the midfielder in order to accommodate livewire youngster Bertrand Traore.
The emergence of the 20-year-old Burkina Faso international, who has scored in the past two rounds of the FA Cup, has been one of the few reasons Chelsea fans have had to be cheerful about during the course of this tumultuous campaign.
Of far greater significance than the availability of Hazard to Chelsea's chances of beating Everton, or failing that coming away from Goodison with a draw, is the fitness of striker Diego Costa.
He has scored 11 goals and provided assists for a further six in his past 15 games in all competitions but was another early casualty against PSG, limping from the field with a hip tendon injury which is yet to resolve itself judging by Hiddink's comments in his prematch news conference. "I will see how he will be," said the Blues boss cryptically. "I cannot say yes or no at this moment."
Costa or no Costa, Terry or no Terry, Chelsea have to stand up and be counted for the full duration of the match against Everton. There will be no excuses accepted for half-hearted performances.
Lose and the Blues' season will be over before Easter. Perish that thought and Hiddink therefore needs to ensure his players fully understand and, perhaps more importantly, care about the consequences of such failure.
Mark Worrall has penned several books on the history and success of Chelsea Football Club. You can follow him on Twitter @gate17marco.