Hiddink reveals his exit strategy: the future lies in players' hands

Sam Wallace hears the manager speak with assurance about Chelsea's chances under his leadership – and beyond
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The Independent Football

For most of Chelsea's former managers, the sight of Roman Abramovich sitting by the edge of the pitch watching training was enough to spook them into yelling instructions at the players as they ran around trying to look the part. For Guus Hiddink at Stamford Bridge yesterday, the scrutinising eye of the bearded wonder who owns Chelsea was barely worth a second thought.

On the brink of the Champions League semi-finals, and with a 3-1 lead for tonight's return leg against Liverpool, Hiddink is in a unique position for an Abramovich Chelsea manager: he is not worried about getting the sack. And it shows. He talked yesterday about the "alarm clock ringing" for his team after they conceded three late goals against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, but there was nothing about the Dutchman to suggest he is gripped by the paranoia that crept up on his predecessors.

There was yet another statement from the club yesterday, this time from the chairman Bruce Buck, saying unequivocally that Hiddink would not be in charge of Chelsea next season even if they win the Champions League. Hiddink's replacement may well have been what Abramovich was discussing as he took a stroll down a sunny Fulham Broadway yesterday with boardroom lieutenant Eugene Tenenbaum at his side and the hired muscle at a discreet distance.

Whoever convinced Abramovich that he cannot poach Hiddink from the Russia national team on a permanent basis must be a very persuasive man, as the Dutchman again delivered a performance yesterday free from the ego or whinging that distinguished some of his predecessors. He managed to talk down his own importance tonight in Chelsea's revival, outlining just why he thought a group of players would perform for a manager who would not be there beyond May.

"I'm not that important regarding what you're more or less asking," he said. "It's not me for whom the [Chelsea] players have to go to the end to get this done... to play two semi-finals to reach two finals. It's because they work with a lot of joy for the club. I'm the intermediate person who tries to make plans and challenge them to get there. Knowing that I'm leaving, it must not be a negative motivation not to do what they'd like to do."

When Sir Alex Ferguson set his retirement from Manchester United for May 2002, he later concluded that the impending regime change caused his players to ease up. Perhaps it is testament to the many managerial changes at Chelsea that the same fate has not befallen Hiddink's players.

"We – and I emphasise this – challenge each other in this group in a very open, direct and tough way," Hiddink said. "There's one aim. The aim is to get to the next round. If players are under-performing just knowing the manager is leaving at the end of the season, it's not the right professional attitude. We're very sharp on that attitude. Even though I'm not here next year, they have to respond. If they don't, they're not equipped to be a big club."

None of Hiddink's predecessors have reached this stage of the Champions League in such a calm state. For Jose Mourinho, it became a personal war with Rafael Benitez; for Avram Grant it was his personal vindication. Hiddink is detached, a man for whom this seems nothing more than an interesting diversion. The trait he shares with Benitez is a complete indifference towards his players, in public at least.

"No, we're not close," Hiddink said. "I have to take decisions against some players because they're not playing. They might be out of shape, or for tactical reasons. I like to have a very direct, open relationship with my players. I don't want to have a relationship where I might play games with them. I don't like that.

"I have an open relationship so I can challenge them with an open mind and an open face. But, on the other hand, a manager should not be having bonds and friendships. That's maybe after we have done our job at this club. I like a very straightforward, direct approach because then you can challenge them in a way to be professional."

The figurative alarm bell that is ringing in Hiddink's mind is there nonetheless. Liverpool will have to score three at Stamford Bridge and the last time they did that was in 1989 when Ian Rush was among the goalscorers. Nevertheless, the absence of the suspended John Terry is significant – he trained with the squad on the pitch yesterday but it will be Alex da Costa and Ricardo Carvalho who are required to stop Fernando Torres.

"We grew into the game [against Bolton], scoring the first and performing after that as we like to play, pressing them, going 4-0 up," Hiddink said. "But when you concede as we did, then it's like an alarm clock ringing for this upcoming game. We should have controlled that last part of the game. We can concede one, at 4-1, but one alarm bell is enough."

No mind games, no jibes at Liverpool, indeed there was some praise for Torres' "beautiful" first goal against Blackburn Rovers. Can Chelsea really win the Champions League without any aggro or offending anyone? Hiddink seems to think so .