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May 14, 2010

Malouda now key to Chelsea success

Guus Hiddink's name was one notable absentee on the guest list for Chelsea's title party on Sunday and yet the players who were revelling in their moment of glory will not have forgotten his considerable input.

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Even though he did not kick a ball in anger, perform a solitary tactical change or even attended a Chelsea game this season, the fruits of Hiddink's labour ripened in the grand manner as the Premier League trophy returned to the Stamford Bridge trophy room.

Carlo Ancelotti had every right to accept the plaudits as he clinched the title in his first year as Chelsea boss, but the studious Italian would concede he owes a debt of gratitude to the mastermind behind the Blues return to the winners' circle. Hiddink may only have been in position at Stamford Bridge for a matter of weeks at the back end of last season, but he provided the ballast to steady a ship that had been rocking alarmingly until his arrival.

The aborted Luiz Felipe Scolari managerial experiment so nearly brought the royal blue machine to breaking point mid-way through last season and it needed the affable Dutchman to complete a speedy, calm and measured rebuild. FA Cup glory was Hiddink's epitaph last season, with a shot at Champions League success only snatched away by a woeful referee and the absence of fortune.

It meant the team Ancelotti inherited was already sailing in the right direction, with the players who malfunctioned under Scolari's command having been rebooted in readiness for a campaign that looks certain to end with Chelsea's first Premier League and FA Cup double.

One man who fits into that 'reboot' category is Florent Malouda, whose form was transformed by Hiddink and he has continued in that vein into this season. Indeed, midfield colleague Frank Lampard suggested the French winger had a good case to be crowned as the club's Player of the Year, only for his close pal Didier Drogba to snatch the honour away from him, but at least the Frenchman will now feel a part of Chelsea's most glorious era.

Malouda's three-year wait for Premier League glory made Sunday's success all the more precious, with the 29-year-old, who flattered to deceive in his first two seasons in England, the first to credit Hiddink for easing his passage towards glory.

"Hiddink was an important man for me at Chelsea in so many ways," confirms Malouda. "He saw that my fitness was not as good as it might have been and he gave small bursts to play in the team last season. He increased my levels in the team when I found my strength and he gives me the trust that may have been lacking before.

"He said he had belief in me and this confidence inspired me to prove him right. I have carried on from there this season and it has been good for me. My confidence has risen from when I first came here and you need that to succeed.

"Maybe I didn't deal with the expectation that comes with joining a big club at first. Mentally, you have to be fully focused at a club like this and it was difficult at the start of my time in England. I allowed myself to be disturbed by everything outside football.

"Also, I had a lot of coaches in my first three years. We had Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Scolari, Hiddink and now Ancelotti and this many was not ideal for Chelsea or me.

"The big thing for me was feeling I belonged in a team that had won everything before I came here. My job was to give them even more, which was a big expectation, but things have gone well the last 18 months. The team are winning trophies again and I am playing my part."

With 15 goals and as many assists to his credit in the end of season analysis, it's clear that this former title winner at Lyon has done his talking on the pitch this term, as he has got to grips with the demands of finding his natural pecking order in a team overloaded with high profile characters, all of whom revel in a leadership role.

Managing the contrasting egos in the Chelsea dressing room proved to be an impossible task for Scolari, but Hiddink found the right balance between allowing the players to express their opinions and ensuring that they appreciated who was in charge.

Ancelotti has also managed to strike the right tone, with the much-publicised heart to heart among his players following their Champions League exit against Inter Milan back in March the moment when the collective Chelsea unit resolve to make up for their upset in the grand manner.

After the off-field scandals that had rocked the club back in January and February, the subsequent European failure was a potentially potent ingredient to throw into the mix, but Ancelotti allowed his player the airtime they needed to vent their fury and from that moment on, they have not looked back.

The quiet and polite Malouda would have been among those taking up a watching brief as the vocal contributors such as John Terry, Lampard, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole offered their vociferous input, with the refocusing of minds coming just as the media were preparing to draw up their 'Chelsea crisis' headlines.

"You look at this Chelsea squad and it features the captains of so many international sides and they all have opinions," says Malouda. "We have lots of characters who like to speak before a game or after a defeat, but I have never been one of them. This is not a problem as it's great that we have so many guys who can change things in a game and have the experience to understand how to react in a difficult situation. In the end, we found a way to win and that's all you can ask for."

Malouda's creative flair has been a key to Chelsea's free-scoring performances in recent months, with their achievement in becoming the first club to score a century of goals in a Premier League campaign a feat that all involved have a right to delight in.

Now he is preparing to return to the venue where he confirmed his arrival as a true Blues hero and after a Man of the Match performance in last season's FA Cup final against Everton, he is hoping for more for the same against Portsmouth on Saturday.

"I scored my first goal for Chelsea at Wembley and it is a venue I love to play at," he adds. "The FA Cup is our trophy right now and we are determined to keep it with us. I had a good day in the Final last year and should have scored a goal as well, but the linesman made a mistake with his decision as my shot was over the line. Portsmouth will make it tough, but we can be confident."

The final word muttered by this World Cup-bound winger has been the key ingredient in what is set to become a season to remember for the player who took time to emerge from the shadow of his illustrious team-mates. Ancelotti is fortunate to be reaping the benefits and he can thank his predecessor for finding the password that unlocked the confidence that has inspired Malouda and Chelsea's revival.

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