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May 30, 2009

Guus goes on a high note

Win or lose, Guus Hiddink was not hanging around. With the Russian FA Cup final being played on Sunday, the Dutchman will be on the first plane East; but can do so as a Cup winner himself, as his final game in charge of Chelsea ended in a well deserved Wembley triumph over Everton.

Hiddink immediately returns to manage Russia, leaving behind him a legacy that will be hard to match for whoever takes over the Stamford Bridge hotseat.

The Dutchman only arrived at Chelsea three months ago, replacing the sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari and, with only one defeat in 21 games, lifted Chelsea to a third place finish in the Premier League and into the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they were narrowly (and controversially) beaten by the eventual winners, Barcelona.

With his name now etched into the club's history books, Hiddink led Chelsea to their first trophy since 2007 amid clamorous calls for him to stay on as full-time boss.

But he will not stay. "Of course I will miss them," he said while confirming there was to be no u-turn. "'We talked a lot about this it was not just an inbetween job. I loved it so much, I enjoyed so much working with big stars, but these big stars they knew exactly what it's all about and I think they showed in the Premier League, in the Champions League and now today a lot character.

"This is one of the biggest moments in my career. The Champions League final I reached with PSV is also also big, but this in the Mecca of world football, the FA Cup - something I can't believe."

Chelsea fans can though, as Hiddink has brought a lot to the club in his short period in charge. Changing the team's training methods, which had been criticised under Scolari for lacking intensity, he also gave the Blues a Plan B and freed Frank Lampard up in the middle. The Dutchman also took the step of pairing Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba up front, which provided the side with an interesting balance of power and pace.

Perhaps no-one, though, has benefited from his arrival more than Florent Malouda. Labelled as an expensive mis-fit, the Frenchman had been a peripheral figure at Chelsea since his arrival from Lyon, but has sparkled since the Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool and appears much more comfortable playing in an advanced wide left role. As if it was already written, Hiddink's key contributions to the side played their part in winning him his first English trophy. Malouda, a constant threat down the left provided the cross for Drogba to head home the first goal; while Lampard took advantage of his new-found space to blast home the winner.

Hiddink has also instilled a fighting spirit at the club. Already seen in the semi-final against Arsenal when they went a goal down before mounting a fightback, Chelsea were hit even harder this time as Louis Saha set a new record of 25 seconds for an FA Cup final goal, but the Blues' reaction was again sublime.

Malouda, playing with renewed vigour, made a fool of Tony Hibbert to such an extent that the Everton right-back was subbed at half-time. Booked after eight minutes for a trip, the defender failed to get near the Frenchman as he swung in a perfect cross for Drogba to head the equaliser. And Hiddink breathed a sigh of relief.

The manager's ability to deal with Drogba can also be highlighted as a point of success. The Ivorian will always be a controversial character: whether it is discussions over his future, passionate outbursts when he feels wronged or his theatrics on the pitch; but he is still one of the best strikers in the game on his day and 11 goals in 20 appearances at the back end of the season has come as a direct result of the Dutchman's faith in him.

Everton, spurred on by a boisterous support, pushed forward. Looking the more likely to score as the second half progressed, Saha should have done better with a free header from just inside the box. Chelsea, and Hiddink, reacted. Michael Ballack was introduced for the ineffective Michael Essien but the Blues, playing in yellow, struggled to break the Toffees down until a moment of brilliance won them the game.

Playing in his free role, the ball found Lampard with space through the middle and, despite a slip, the England midfielder was able to regain his composure and strike a vicious left-footed effort on goal. It was a moment of pure class as he was able to avoid the attention of Phil Neville, and although Tim Howard, in the Everton goal, got hands to it, he was unable to keep it out of the net.

Hiddink clasped his own hands to the skies as Malouda then wasted a fine opportunity to seal the win. Cole played the ball inside to Lampard, and the midfielder slid the ball through to the Frenchman who, in the absence of a flag, sliced his shot past the post.

Malouda was at the centre of things again shortly afterwards as he hit a crashing shot off the underside of the bar. Howard was nowhere near it and was relieved to see the ball bounce back into his arms, but the ball looked over the line and Chelsea's sense of injustice stiffened. Memories of Barcelona returned.

Pienaar brought down Lampard in the box and the Blues fans' screams could be heard at Stamford Bridge. Another penalty claim denied? Yes, and a booking for Lampard to add insult to injury; but Chelsea were not to be denied this time and Anelka even had time to waste a glorious chance to put gloss on the scoreline when he was through on goal.

Hiddink said before the game that he did not want the players to win the cup for him but, as the final whistle was blown, each player embraced their departing Dutchman. Whoever comes in this summer now has a benchmark to follow, which will be no easy task and Chelsea fans can only dream what he could have achieved if he'd been at the club from the start of the season.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Florent Malouda. So good in the first half that he caused Tony Hibbert to be replaced at half-time, he created the first goal, had the run of the left hand side and was unfortunate not to have another Wembley goal after his shot hit the bar and crossed the line, but was not given.

• GUUS WATCH: Constantly prowling the technical area, Hiddink looked like he wanted to savour every moment of his last match (for the time being at least) in England, as he hardly left the touchline.

• CHELSEA VERDICT: Not at their devastating best, Chelsea were patient and dominated possession and had the power and skill to turn the game around after their horror start. Hiddink delivered their first trophy in two years, now the rebuilding starts.

• EVERTON VERDICT: Not enough was seen from their big-game players. After Saha's 25-second strike, the likes of Cahill and Fellaini were kept quiet. Seemingly content to hold off the Chelsea attacks until penalties, the Toffees just didn't have enough to break the Blues down.

• COLE CONGRATULATIONS: Chelsea full-back Ashley Cole may not be the most liked of players but became the first for more than 100 years to win five FA Cup winners' medals, having won the trophy three times with Arsenal and again with Chelsea in 2007. A man-of-the-match award may have been given on sentiment as Malouda was more deserving, but he still deserves praise.

• THE HEAT IS ON: At 108 degrees on pitch level, the players suffered on one of the hottest days of the English year so far. Fans at ground level were also treated to a hefty blast from two, huge flamethrowers which sprung into action just before kick-off.

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