Hiddink sees Anelka take lead in Chelsea 'soap opera'

Watford 1 Chelsea 3
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The Independent Football

In their first match after the manager before, Chelsea were looking dangerously like nothing at all had changed. The words "Stoke City", or "Hull City" might easily have been racing around the minds of Frank Lampard, Nicolas Anelka or Ashley Cole.

Against Stoke, at Stamford Bridge last month, they dominated but then fell behind, only to win, in extremis, leading to – and how this looks hollow now – much cavorting and celebrating with the now-departed Luiz Felipe Scolari. As Chelsea's Premier League challenge appeared to be faltering, there was talk of that win helping the club to get it back on track. Against Hull, the performance was even worse, and the goalless draw at home nine days ago turned out to be the Brazilian's last game in charge.

Cue pandemonium, back-biting and sniping, while the Dutchman Guus Hiddink was appointed as the Blues' manager until the end of the season. In the meantime, Scolari's assistant Ray Wilkins was in charge for this FA Cup fifth-round tie. "It's a soap opera. It's out there in public for everyone to see, and feel and smell," was the observation of Brendan Rodgers, the former Chelsea reserve team coach who became Watford's manager in the autumn.

Wilkins will return to the background and, hopefully, Hiddink will talk to the press regardless of a win, defeat or draw. That was not the case under Scolari, who latterly, picked his moments to talk far too carefully. Hiddink's command of English, unlike Scolari, is almost perfect. If he is attacked on a football matter, he wants to defend himself.

This was meant to be Wilkins's show – Hiddink told him on Thursday that it was "your gig" – but the man who is also currently Russia's manager likes to talk. And so he did. Wilkins brought him up to speed on what had been going wrong, and Hiddink tried to correct the advancing full-back system that had operated under Scolari.

Michael Mancienne was all ears. The right-back, 21, was making his debut, with the regular right-back, Jose Bosingwa, not even on the bench. Mancienne had been called back by Scolari from a loan spell with Wolverhampton Wanderers, but then did not use him. Here, Wilkins showed faith in him while Hiddink issued instructions.

Mancienne said: "He's [Hiddink] basically said he's just going to give us a bit of structure. Instead of our wing-backs pushing too high up, like we have been doing the past few games, he wants one of them to cover back when the play is around the other side. He reinforced a few things and had a lot of tactical input before the game."

Hiddink was sitting with the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, in the stands at Vicarage Road and would also have watched with interest how Didier Drogba and Anelka got on. Although not picked to play up front together, as Anelka was on the wing, occasionally swapping with the Ivory Coast international, they were rarely given that opportunity under Scolari.

Drogba's thoughts on being under-used under Scolari were clear. He said: "It's always good for a player to be on the pitch. It's always better to have some games." Anelka, scorer of all three Chelsea goals, had his say too: "A lot of people said we couldn't play together. But we never really tried to play together. Today, in 20 minutes, we scored three goals."

Chelsea and Anelka, who had already hit the post, were shocked into more decisive play when they suffered their Stoke City moment, as the substitute Tamas Priskin ran through on the counter-attack to chip Petr Cech. The Watford lead lasted six minutes, as Anelka executed an overhead kick from close range and then beat Scott Loach with a header from 10 yards. He had his hat-trick and his 20th goal of the season with a low shot from the edge of the box.

With that, Hiddink departed saying nothing, but with a key game against Aston Villa to come this weekend, and then Juventus after that in the Champions League, perhaps he was just saving himself. We will hear plenty from him between now and May.

Goals: Priskin (69) 1-0; Anelka (75) 1-1; Anelka (77) 1-2; Anelka (90) 1-3.

Watford (4-4-2): Loach; Hoyte, DeMerit, Mariappa, Doyley; Smith, Jenkins, L Williamson (Cowie, 66), McAnuff; Hoskins (O'Toole, 76), Rasiak (Priskin, 66). Substitutes not used: Lee (gk), Sadler, Harley, Parkes.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Mancienne, Alex, Ivanovic, Cole; Mikel (Stoch, 73); Anelka, Ballack (Belletti, 83), Lampard, Kalou; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Di Santo, Quaresma, Ferreira, Deco.

Referee: M Dean (Wirral)

Booked: Chelsea Cole

Man of the match: Anelka

Attendance: 16,851