Russia coach Guus Hiddink begins his temporary assignment as Chelsea FC manager on Saturday and the trip to Aston Villa FC could go a long way towards deciding whether the Dutchman will leave the west London club this summer with a UEFA Champions League berth secured.
Eight dropped points in five 2009 Premier League games spelled the end for Luiz Felipe Scolari at Stamford Bridge, and led to the call for a man whose Russia side went one stage further that the Brazilian's Portugal team at UEFA EURO 2008™. Victory in Birmingham against a side that have only lost once at home in the league this season would lift Chelsea above Villa into the third of England's automatic UEFA Champions League group berths for next term. Lose and Chelsea would be five points behind Martin O'Neill's side and fending off Arsenal FC for fourth place.
Hiddink has already proved he can coach a club and a country simultaneously; in 2005/06 he defended the Eredivisie title and reached the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds with PSV Eindhoven while also securing a FIFA World Cup berth for Australia and making the last 16 in Germany. Chelsea still harbour hopes of closing the ten-point Premier League gap between them and leaders Manchester United FC. They are also in the FA Cup quarter-finals and play Juventus on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League first knockout round.
"Although time is limited, it's a challenge and we know the situation," said Hiddink, who watched Chelsea beat Watford FC 3-1 in the FA Cup with a Nicolas Anelka hat-trick last weekend. "In the league Chelsea are ten points down on Man U which will be very difficult, but we must and will give it a try. And in the other two [competitions] Chelsea is in the race and this why it is a challenge.
I am not here to pass the time until the end of the season."
The 62-year-old has had only a week's training to pick up the morale of a team far from the ruthless machine of the José Mourinho era, and if they are to add another league title to the two won under the Portuguese coach, Hiddink admits they need United to stumble. "If you are ten points ahead you feel comfortable but in the history of football there have been changes in the final minutes," he said. "On the other hand it is difficult because my fellow Dutchman [Edwin] Van der Sar is breaking record after record. I have to call him and say, 'Stop breaking these records!' Chelsea don't just have to win, [United] have to lose."
That said, Hiddink's management has reinvigorated captain John Terry. "There are new styles and methods," Terry said. "He has come in and changed it and we have looked sharp over the last few days. He's changed the pace. He has got his methods and tactics which he wants to get across to us. He wants us to apply pressure more, play higher up the pitch.
He just wants to do it his way."
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