James Lawton: Certainty is the core of Hiddink revitalisation – that and a little bit of love
Monday 20 April 2009
Even in the glow of significant victory, Guus Hiddink is not inclined to take his hand off the throttle he so cheerfully applies to his pet Harley-Davidson. In just one trademarked phrase of football subtlety he moved Chelsea on from the overpowering of Arsenal to the "beautiful" challenge represented by Europe's most dazzling team, Barcelona, in the Champions League semi-finals.
Yes, he agreed, he can call upon extraordinary physical force in such as the reincarnated warrior Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and, in his opinion, the hugely underrated Alex.
But, no, he would not prostrate himself entirely at the feet of his incredible hulks. "Power is not enough," said the Red Adair of world football, "I also like the very clever players who can smell and read a game."
This was a special tribute to Alex, who is keeping Ricardo Carvalho out of his team – and who was once pilloried by Jose Mourinho in a specially prepared video aimed at persuading Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, that the Brazilian defender was not required at Stamford Bridge. But, of course, it might been more obviously attached to the source of Barça's beauty – the exquisite and biting axis of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta.
Hiddink is already defining the nature of the battle that could well determine the identity of Europe's best team: beauty against the beasts, or the possibility of Hiddink's tanks rolling through the Barcelona rose garden.
What was not in question here was that Hiddink's emphatic declaration that soon enough he will soon be re-immersed in Russia's World Cup challenge, with the Chelsea connection officially cut, will inevitably be a matter for fierce and beseeching negotiation by his paymaster Abramovich.
Hiddink's genius for regrounding football teams, for defining their options, was again perfectly stated in the subduing of an Arsenal team who started the more brightly, but eventually had the life squeezed out of them.
Arsène Wenger, the object of the most generous praise from Hiddink before the game, was certainly at his most clinical when explaining the Chelsea victory.
After acknowledging the force of Drogba's killer mentality, Wenger said, "Chelsea are very strong and physically mature. They know where to stand on the pitch and you feel that if one team will take advantage of a mistake it will be them, because they have a big experience in their side. That's basically what they did today. It's all based on power and efficiency and they did it well. I didn't feel they were dominating the game, but they played to be efficient. When you get closer to the trophies it has a part to play."
Naturally, Wenger said this with profound sadness. Theo Walcott's early goal encouraged the hope that Arsenal's impressive revival would open the door to a first trophy in four years, despite the most formidable of opposition.
But Cesc Fabregas had mislaid his inspiration – perhaps it had gone, so soon after recovery from a long injury, with the energy drained in the impressive defeat of Villarreal three days earlier. Robin van Persie also looked spent and for the slowing Mikaël Silvestre Drogba brought an agenda of nightmare, with each item ticked off with crushing formality.
Legitimately enough, Wenger claimed that he was unbowed. With a team averaging in age 21-22 years, against Chelsea's 29, and a place in Europe's last four, this was a lagging step rather than a wholesale retreat and he insisted that his young team indeed had a winning mentality.
What Chelsea have under Hiddink, it has rarely been clearer, is that certainty of purpose which is at the root of a coach's challenge. The reclamation of Drogba, for example, had been built on nothing more elaborate than a cool appraisal of his situation and his instincts.
Drogba was in need of a little love and a little confidence, said the Dutchman. While Luiz Felipe Scolari planted him on the bench and told anyone who cared to listen that he was one of Chelsea's most seriously underperforming stars, Hiddink lifted him up. "He needed a smile on his face," Hiddink said. "It is natural." And, he might have added, elementary.
Hiddink did add: "I saw him playing in the World Cup in Germany. There he was very strong, although his team, Ivory Coast, did not come through for other reasons. He was impressive in Germany and I knew what his potential could be. The only thing was that he had to deliver, and he is delivering now. When you have to play against him it hurts. He is very strong physically and he is very brave."
Drogba was the decisive factor here, certainly, and if Barcelona's coach, Pep Guardiola, must believe that he has the attacking resources at least to balance the Drogba threat, and the re-emerging, rhino power of Essien, his back four encourages no more confidence than Arsenal's did when the Chelsea striker had the ball and inhaled their fear.
Will Abramovich resign himself to the loss of the manager who, more seriously than any of his predecessors, including the vaunted Mourinho, has made the oligarch's Champions League ambition seem like something more than the possible fruit of chance and speculation? It is extremely hard to imagine, especially if you accept that ultimately every man has his price.
But then maybe the secret of Hiddink, and why such a key figure in the dressing room as John Terry is refusing to accept the inevitability of his departure, is the perception that perhaps he doesn't.
What is surely beyond debate is that whatever job he takes and whatever its financial rewards, Guus Hiddink is unlikely ever to abandon his operating principles. You could read that in the subtext of his tribute to Wenger. The Arsenal manager, he said, is his own man with his own priorities – and power. Wherever he has been, Hiddink has never accepted for himself anything less.
Such a man, and such a record, is always likely to build the confidence of a team. It is a quality, Abramovich may have to accept, that in the end money can't always buy.
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