“I am not so concerned about what might happen in the future. If you think too much about risks then you should sit at home and watch plastic flowers and that’s it.” Guus Hiddink, Stamford Bridge, yesterday.
Jose Mourinho used to talk about his life in football as like being in a film. This is my movie, he would say, not yours. Guus Hiddink was at it too as he gave his first press conference, speaking from behind a table set in the away dressing room at Chelsea. “Finishing second and getting to the Champions League final sounds like a movie,” he said.
“That would be a beautiful end to the season. You’ve given me a good idea and we’ll work on that. That would be very OK.”
There has always been something cinematic about Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, although he may not welcome that runners-up billing. The epic wealth, the expectations, the big signings (and even bigger egos) and the steady stream of dramatic storylines, often increasingly improbable. And now Roman has the man he has coveted for so long as manager. His “insurance policy” brought in to save Chelsea’s season. For four months at least. Or, who knows, maybe longer.
Hiddink, the coach of the Russian national team, doubling up as Chelsea manager, was always going to face persistent questioning about his future. To the TV cameras he dead-batted everything – “I will help out until the end of the season, only until the end of the season” – and he maintained that line throughout, although there was a little chink later on when he said: “I am full-hearted in my contract and obligations to the Russian federation. Let’s first play your final.”
It is more than likely that should Hiddink succeed at Chelsea – and that definition of success is broad – then Abramovich, despite the political problems, the ramifications in Russia at the very highest level and the looming World Cup may well be engineering a plan to keep the Dutchman in place. After having worked to get him through the door into Stamford Bridge, he will not easily see him exit.
Finishing second in the Premier League and reaching the Champions League final – Avram Grant’s achievement last season – represents a tall order at present for a team in decline. But it also represents a slight shift on Hiddink’s “we can catch Manchester United” rallying cry of last week. “Realistically, it’s difficult,” he said of the 10-point gap to the champions. But there was, and will not be, any excuses. “The players must deliver up to their standard, up to the club’s standard. I don’t give them any excuses, saying, ‘Let’s give it three or four weeks to see what has been changed’. Results are important, but the way Chelsea is playing is also important. Playing an attractive style of football gives more guarantees on results in my opinion. There was no obligation, no demand from Abramovich, but I think we must deliver and get results and must not forget that style and the way of playing is important.”
Three times in the past week he has sat and watched matches with Abramovich. How close is their relationship? “What is close?” he said. “I respect the way he contributes to Russian football. Every now and again we see each other to see how it is developing. We are not friends, friends. Friends see each other every day and they know all the bad things about you. We don’t talk a lot about the specific tactics or strategy, we talk generally about football and he loves it. He watches a lot of games. He can enjoy it when he is watching, for instance, this week at Brentford with the reserves. I look at the players and also 180 degrees and I see that he is enjoying watching young players.”
Such vision may come in handy. Luiz Felipe Scolari certainly didn’t see his dramatic departure coming. But then Hiddink has another advantage. “At the end of the season I cannot be sacked,” he said. “Before? Maybe. But not at the end of the season because our working relationship ends.”
Maybe that will give him a greater freedom, but that freedom already exists, given his relationship with Abramovich. The Russian has utmost respect for Hiddink. And he knows it. Scolari? Winning a World Cup seven years ago helped to get him the job but his time in club management, and its daily intensity, proved too distant. Will Hiddink – at 62, two years older than the Brazilian by the way – be the same? “I cannot talk about Felipe’s seven months,” he said. But it is quite some time since he coached a club? “No, every morning I am on time in Cobham (Chelsea’s training ground). So I don’t forget: ‘Oh, I’m national team manager I don’t have to go. Oh, when is the next game? March? Oh, I can sleep for three weeks’. I hope I haven’t forgotten. I love working daily.”
His first game, away today at Aston Villa who, never mind Manchester United or Liverpool, are two points ahead of fourth-placed Chelsea, presents a fierce challenge. Defeat, at a stadium where Chelsea have not won for 10 years, is unthinkable for them. Hiddink said a draw is, also. “We must not lose two points [there],” he stated. “We are still on track – in the Premier League it is not a luxurious one – but we are still there.”
There will not be wholesale changes. “I won’t make many changes,” he said, while suggesting it was time for some of Chelsea’s “big players” to step forward. “At any level, but especially the high level, you have to have the attitude to deliver and take your responsibility,” Hiddink said while brushing aside the concerns over the divisions that existed within the squad, saying he had seen little evidence of it since his arrival. “I’m not fully aware of their struggles and I’m not interested. I don’t want to know too much about the recent past,” Hiddink declared.
The immediate future, for him, is clear. But after that how will the plot develop?
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