Guus Hiddink's second fairy-tale FA Cup run at Chelsea still on the cards
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts on Chelsea's commanding 5-1 win over a heavily rotated Manchester City side at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
1. City youngsters give Pellegrini something to think about
If this match doubled as Manuel Pellegrini's audition for the Chelsea job next summer, perhaps he was wise to present himself as a champion of youth. Much of the pre-match talk centred around Man City's fury at the scheduling of this FA Cup fifth-round tie just three days before the resumption of their Champions League campaign against Dynamo Kiev in Ukraine, and Pellegrini carried out his threat to field a severely under-strength side.
Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva were all omitted from the squad, while captain Vincent Kompany travelled to London only to sit on the bench. In their absence, five teenagers -- Tosin Adarabioyo, Bersant Celina, Aleix Garcia, Manu Garcia and David Faupala -- made their debuts while Nigerian sensation Kelechi Iheanacho was given another chance to impress.
A protest it may have been, but Pellegrini's starting XI also represented the kind of vote of confidence Chelsea's vaunted academy has been crying out for. Guus Hiddink is far more mindful of player development than Jose Mourinho ever was, but determined to end his second interim spell at Stamford Bridge with silverware, the Dutchman fielded the same team that narrowly lost to Paris Saint-Germain in midweek.
From the outset, it was clear that City's less familiar faces did not consider this mere work experience. French striker Faupala battled Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic physically as well as technically. Celina and the two Garcias used the ball safely and sensibly in midfield, while Adarabioyo performed with the kind of positional assurance and composure all too often lacking from Eliaquim Mangala's performances this season.
Indeed, when City cracked on 35 minutes, it was Martin Demichelis and Aleksandar Kolarov -- two of Pellegrini's most trusted and experienced lieutenants -- who were most culpable, allowing Diego Costa to meet Eden Hazard's looping cross with a free header in the six-yard box. City's youngsters led the instant response, with Faupala turning the ball around the corner to Iheanacho before latching onto the Nigerian's low cross to deflect Cesar Azpilicueta's attempted clearance into the net.
Suitably chastened, Chelsea ramped up their attacking intensity at the start of the second half and once again City's older heads were the ones to be lost. Demichelis allowing Willian a free run onto Hazard's through pass on 48 minutes to fire low past Willy Caballero, then Fernando's scuffed control giving Cahill the chance to rifle in a decisive third five minutes later.
Demichelis still had time to distinguish himself for the wrong reasons again, crudely cutting down Hazard 25 yards out, earning himself a yellow card and watching as the Belgian curled a delightful free kick past Caballero.
Pellegrini's youthful FA Cup experiment will look foolish if City's first string underwhelm against Dynamo Kiev and Liverpool in the Capital One Cup final, but it was no fruitless exercise. Several of his teenage reserves did enough to at least suggest they merit consideration over City's less-than-impressive resident Galacticos. If Hiddink shows similar courage in team selection between now and May, it's perfectly possible that Chelsea might arrive at the same conclusion.
2. Hazard showing signs of recovery
Relief was the emotion etched across Hazard's face when he scored Chelsea's otherwise-meaningless fourth goal in a 5-1 victory over MK Dons last month. Calmly slotting in a penalty, he rolled his eyes to the heavens and kissed the badge on his shirt in front of the travelling support.
It was Hazard's first Chelsea goal in nine months and appeared to be the clearest sign yet that the Mourinho malaise and persistent injuries were behind him. An interview with Le Parisien in which he courted interest from PSG and Real Madrid, however, set supporter sympathy back and re-ignited speculation around the Belgian's future at Stamford Bridge.
Shackled by a disciplined and physical PSG defence at Parc des Princes on Tuesday, Hazard needed a performance worthy of the reigning PFA Player of the Year on Sunday, and he provided one against a youthful City. He tormented a startlingly faded Pablo Zabaleta down the left flank and gradually grew in confidence to play decisive passes in the final third, supplying the cross that enabled Costa to break the deadlock and slipping through Willian early in the second half to restore Chelsea's lead.
Two superb assists were capped with a goal on 67 minutes, when he drew a rash foul from the hapless Demichelis in typical fashion before wrong-footing Caballero with a pinpoint free kick that curled into the far corner. Hiddink left Hazard on the pitch even once a Chelsea victory had been guaranteed, aware that his playmaker needs confidence more than rest in this nightmare season. The sharpness he exhibited in flashes will be required in even greater quantities when PSG visit Stamford Bridge next month.
Hazard's long-term future is far from guaranteed, and he will have no shortage of suitors if he wants to look elsewhere in the summer. But as the Matthew Harding Stand chanted his name in the closing minutes, it became clear that for now, Chelsea will settle for their resident superstar returning to his best.
3. Hiddink's FA Cup dream moves closer
The FA Cup occupies a special place in Hiddink's heart. He departed Stamford Bridge a hero after edging out Everton in the 2009 final, rescuing what had threatened to become a lost season under Luiz Felipe Scolari with major silverware alongside a glorious and agonising Champions League run.
If anyone was in doubt of his desire to repeat the feat this season, Chelsea's starting XI put paid to any misconceptions. Hiddink kept faith with the same team that went toe-to-toe with PSG at Parc des Princes on Tuesday, paying no heed to Pellegrini's promise to blood City's youngsters.
The visitors acquitted themselves well in difficult circumstances at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea's passage through to the FA Cup quarterfinals never felt in doubt. It was tempting to credit a stern half-time word from Hiddink when the hosts found another gear to settle the match after the interval.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek's failure to get onto the pitch during what eventually became a rout will not please some Chelsea fans, but the 20-year-old homegrown hope is far more likely to get his first-team chances in the Premier League between now and May as Hiddink prioritises the competitions he can still win.
Better news on the development front is Bertrand Traore's latest goal-scoring cameo. The Burkina Faso youngster's third goal in as many substitute appearances has dulled the focus on Alexandre Pato's continuing unavailability as he continues his "preseason" fitness regime. The Brazilian was officially presented to Stamford Bridge at half-time to bemused applause.
But on a day of positives for Hiddink, the biggest of all is that after eliminating one of the biggest threats in the competition on home turf, his second fairytale FA Cup ending is still very much on the cards.