Michael Ballack has paid tribute to the "charisma" of manager Guus Hiddink, whom he credits with returning Chelsea FC to the force of old by helping the players recover their "team spirit, fighting ability and power".
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Michael Ballack has paid tribute to the "charisma" of manager Guus Hiddink, whom he credits with returning Chelsea FC to the force of old by helping the players regain their "team spirit, fighting ability and power".
Chelsea have won six successive games since Hiddink replaced Luiz Felipe Scolari last month, including a 1-0 first-leg victory in their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie with Juventus. Ballack concedes the English side may not have it all their own way in Turin, and that the match "could last 120 minutes", yet is confident Hiddink will see them through. "The coach and I have met a couple of times over the years," said the German international. "He has had great success in the past and has great experience and charisma, which has really come through in the last few matches. In the last five or six games our results have been fantastic and we've got back to winning ways. We have started to show our strengths again – our team spirit, fighting ability, power. We still have improvements to make but we're on the up."
Chelsea's return to form – as well as that room for improvement – was in evidence at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago. Didier Drogba capped a bright start with a 12th-minute opener but Juventus worked their way back into the game, coming close to the all-important equaliser. "Juventus played very well in the first leg," said Ballack after dismissing suggestions of a disparity in fitness levels. "They had to take more of a risk and come forward once they went behind and we had to defend more, which is normal against a good team.
"We can play better than we did in the first leg, and I'm positive because in the last few league games we've started to play well and shown good character – like we did against Wigan [Athletic FC] when we conceded but had the character to react," the 32-year-old continued. "When you play the first leg at home, it is never easy because you're not sure what a good result is – 1-0, 2-0? Do you go for another goal? The opponent attacks more when they're behind so you have to be cautious. We're just happy that we didn't concede. It was a good result and now we'll see how much it was worth."
With 76 UEFA Champions League appearances to his name, Ballack is one of the older hands charged with ensuring Hiddink's instructions are carried out on the pitch, even if he believes Chelsea are perfectly equipped to share the responsibility. "The senior players should always lead from the front but the youngsters play their part as well and we have a good balance," he said. "We've done well in this competition in recent years, our goal is to reach the final and we won't settle for less."