Guus Hiddink admitted yesterday that Manchester United had left the rest of the Premier League behind and Chelsea would have to copy Sir Alex Ferguson's strategies if they were to have any hope of competing with them in the future. The Dutchman said that Chelsea had to start thinking "two steps ahead", instead of just focusing on the short term.
The interim Chelsea manager, whose side can close the gap to United to four points if they beat Portsmouth tonight, said that he was not "scared" by the prospect of trying to compete with Ferguson for the three major trophies left this season. However, the bad news for Chelsea is that Nicolas Anelka is almost certain to miss tonight's game after bruising a toe, thus depriving Hiddink of his top goalscorer. With Liverpool's title challenge fading, and Arsenal's non-existent, it was put to Hiddink that he is arguably the last manager capable of denying Ferguson his 11th Premier League title. In an echo of Kevin Keegan's famous 1996 television rant – although delivered in a considerably calmer mood – Hiddink said he would "love" to stop Ferguson claiming all four major trophies. "I hope that we can stop him," he said, "I'd love to stop him [achieving] this aim."
However, it was Hiddink's assessment of Ferguson the manager which gave an insight into just how far Chelsea have to go to catch up. "He [Ferguson] has a very good organisation, he thinks one or two steps ahead, about what will happen next year or the year after," Hiddink said. "We have to make our philosophy and strategy not only for now but for the future. You make reports on your players and try to foresee what the future is. That's what they [United] do very well. They prepare their near future very well, from what I can see. There's good balance in their [squad's] age groups.
"Yes, they have been a very dominant, organised club for many years. It's a good philosophy, in my opinion. Other clubs may try to go the same way – some clubs have their own academies as well, like this club. You want to make your players competitive for the first-team squad, as well."
Such is Hiddink's determination to return to his Russia coach job full-time at the end of the season, he would not even discuss what Chelsea's long-term future might be, preferring instead to say it was "a question for the management" of the club. So far, not one of the club's academy graduates has made an impression on the first team, despite a considerable investment from owner Roman Abramovich.
Shortly before Hiddink's arrival, Chelsea's Under-18 team, which is stocked largely with players bought by the out-of-favour chief scout and director of youth development Frank Arnesen, were eliminated from the FA Youth Cup by Liverpool's equivalent team. As for the age profile of the first-team squad, there seems to be no change in the reliance on the older players, such as Frank Lampard (30), Didier Drogba (31 this month), Anelka (pictured, 30 this month), Ricardo Carvalho (29) and John Terry (28).
On Ferguson himself, Hiddink said he was not daunted by the prospect of coming into a league that Ferguson has competed in for more than 22 years and in which his power and influence range far and wide. "I don't know if people are scared of him," Hiddink said. "I was not scared. I don't know whether players or young managers are scared of him, but I'm not fully aware of everything.
"Why should up-and-coming managers be scared of him?" Now that Chelsea are in second place, albeit on goal difference, Hiddink was duty-bound to say his team have a chance of catching United, but even he was not certain. "As long as there is a possibility, you never know. But, realistically, it will be difficult," he said.
The long-awaited comeback of Michael Essien, out since September, is now imminent. The midfielder was due to play, along with Carvalho, in last night's reserve game against Aston Villa.
So far, Hiddink and Ferguson have never faced one another as managers, apart from a 2004 friendly between United and PSV Eindhoven. Hiddink said mistakenly yesterday that they had – "Berry Van Aerle gave away a penalty" – but the game he was referring to was in November 1984. Ferguson was manager of Aberdeen but Hiddink was only assistant manager to Jan Reker. Gordon Strachan scored the penalty and Aberdeen won 1-0.
"It [football] is an addiction so you can empathise with Sir Alex," Hiddink said. "He tried to pack it in once a few years ago... Then he got bored. This is football. It's in his body."