Is the prospect of success imminent in Guus Hiddink's reign at Chelsea?
Chelsea's fairy tale has been a melancholic strain in Jose Mourinho's failed reign and the Blues were left plummeting deep down with the passage of every match in the first half of the season. It was surely a sight that filled every Chelsea fan with a mixture of despair and exasperation.
While the blame for the failure, as always, took two branches with one leading to the manager’s futile tactics and the other landing straight on the faces of players who were suffering from a really bad slump, one can't help thinking about the deplorable performance displayed by the Men in Blue on the field.
Whatever misfortune-in-disguise that seemed to envelope the team's hard-gained reputation by clouds of defeat appears to have finally bid a goodbye as the team's performance under the interim manager has evidently improved. The players who were unable to take inspiration from the countless fans who stood by their sides in the dark days have quite mysteriously come back trumpeting in form after Christmas.
Chelsea primarily lost most of the midfield battles under Mourinho as both Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic invariably performed very poorly. Matic was the backbone of Chelsea's midfield last season and served as an integral part of the first team. But, what's up with the man this season is a big question mark. Chelsea's attacking play, on the other hand, was no better as Diego Costa preferred other aggressive diversions over scoring goals on the field.
Can Chelsea reach the top four and qualify for the Champions League?
Chelsea's swagger against Crystal Palace somehow poised itself to reflect their trophy-winning performance last season under the ‘Special One’. Although firing Mourinho has triggered waves of disapproval and contempt among many football pundits who considered the decision to be hasty, it indirectly has somehow helped the Blues find their long-lost form. Above all, Costa recorded an assist and three splendid goals in the last two matches – ring any bells?
Chelsea still have a 18-match window to regain the points lost. Although finishing as table-toppers is nearly impossible, the team can still try to escalate its position to the Champions League spots which is precisely 13 points away from the Blue's current position.
This roughly equals four wins and a draw. Judging from this, Chelsea somehow needs to race the forerunners with five more wins in the remaining games in order to find a position in the top four. The odds against this are pretty subtle.
Their ambition to get to the Champions League spots depends not only on their performance, but is hugely contingent on the performance of the teams above them as well. Chelsea really cannot afford any defeats although a couple of draws can be tolerated.
On the other hand, the top teams slumping in performance also counts. They should lose a minimum of six games to at least pave a way for the defending champions to march ahead – indeed, a tough fact to grasp.
What has Hiddink changed at Chelsea?
It appears that the Dutchman has managed to bring about a few tweaks in the tactics and the on field tactical leadership has evidently improved. Mourinho's tactics were, as we all know centered around defending and this ended up impairing the quality of attack, in turn affecting the team’s goalscoring potential.
The midfielders were also struggling in Mourinho's period and this enabled the opposition to breach Chelsea's midfield easily during counter-attacks. This evidently failed the whole point about the defensive strategy.
On the other hand, Chelsea's display under Hiddink saw more of an attacking mindset than possession and containing. This, in some way, has powered the team to procure three precious goals, thus recording a performance which was the arguably their best ever in the 2015/16 campaign.
Hiddink's reign saw more of John Obi Mikel than Mourinho's and this has discernibly strengthened the midfield. Mikel played a significant role in their FA Cup winning run in 2009 and has the potential to turn things around for Chelsea in this season as well.
Against Crystal Palace, Mikel was outstanding. He has the discipline for a holding midfielder and never wanders from that area of the field. And that allowed Cesc Fabregas to get away and do what he wanted to do – perform and to hurt Crystal Palace with the ball in forward areas.
This is the second time Chelsea have reached out to Hiddink to save their season and the Dutchman's Champions League progress will be instrumental in deciding the success of the campaign. At the same time, it will also play a major role in sealing a permanent position in Stamford Bridge if the 69-year old decides to stay.
Nevertheless, it all depends on what one perceives to be a successful epilogue to this season. If finishing high up the mid-table is the ultimate aim, then, the job isn't that arduous. All Chelsea needs to do is consider winning a fair amount of games without losing much, which in turn guarantees a steady rise.