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Monday, February 23, 2009

Guus Hiddink: I cannot lose as Chelsea manager

Guus Hiddink, the Chelsea manager

A quick glance through the recent history books suggests that Chelsea are the most intense, pressurised club at which to work in the Barclays Premier League, with Roman Abramovich casting off managers as a Roman emperor would his concubines, but these circumstances are the exception that proves the rule. Until the end of the season, Hiddink is in a win-win situation.

If he is successful, by ending the club’s long wait to win the Champions League, there will be such a clamour for him to be appointed permanently that even Abramovich, the owner, will struggle to ignore it, leading to a political wrangle with the Russian Football Union for his services. If he fails, he can return to Moscow for a quiet life to steer Russia to next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa. As Hiddink acknowledged yesterday, his position is as close to bulletproof as it gets.

“At the end of the season, I cannot be sacked,” he said. “Before? Maybe. But not at the end of the season, because our working relationship ends at the end of the season.” The challenge begins this lunchtime away to Aston Villa, where Ricardo Carvalho could make a surprise return after a hamstring injury, having trained yesterday.

But Hiddink cannot really come to harm, even in the more intangible area of maintaining his international reputation, because he will take the credit for any success while being able to blame setbacks on the unrest in a dressing-room whose divisions have already been made public. No wonder Hiddink did not consider joining Chelsea to be a risk, with the only danger being that he will antagonise fans in Russia, such as those who protested against his dual role in Moscow yesterday.

“It was not an easy decision to make, but in this business I don’t think it’s important to spend too much time worrying about risks,” the Chelsea interim manager said. “I love the game and working with young, energetic people and I am not so concerned about what might happen in the future. If you think too much about risks then you should sit at home and watch plastic flowers.”

All of which goes some way to explaining Hiddink’s relaxed demeanour at Stamford Bridge yesterday, but the tone he has taken with his players has been rather different. There has been a marked increase in intensity on the training ground this week and, in keeping with his preference for flexibility, the players have switched repeatedly between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, in contrast to his predecessor’s dogmatic devotion to 4-1-4-1.

Hiddink is well aware of the fact that several players were implicated in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure, by failing to perform to their potential if nothing else, and made a point of reminding them of their responsibilities. The 62-year-old will revert to his senior players at Villa Park today after watching Ray Wilkins experiment with youth in the FA Cup win against Watford, but will stick with them only if they respond to his methods.

“In any group, whether you are footballers or anyone else, there is a hierarchy,” Hiddink said. “And that is how it should be because with the right attitude, you can challenge those players to take responsibility. I like to have a recognised hierarchy in my team because they can help boss the younger players, and I see that as healthy.

“A manager has power, but it’s limited power. When you bring in new ideas it’s not a revolution at all. The players have to cope with these ideas and they have to execute. I said to the players that I like very much the experience of the Premier League, but I’ve not come and asked them to give me three or four weeks and then we’ll start work. Chelsea are now in circumstances to deliver. The players must deliver up to their standard, up to the club’s standard. I don’t give them any excuses, saying let’s give it three or four weeks to see what has been changed.

“At any level, but especially the high level, you have to have the attitude to deliver and take your responsibility as a big player. If you take the responsibility then you have the right to fail every now and then because they are human as well, but not by not taking responsibility. They must always do that, no matter who is the manager and who is in charge. They owe that to the fans, who are very loyal to the club. They owe more to them than to managers or whatever.”

Having laid down the law to his players, Hiddink felt sufficiently relaxed to discuss his relationship with Abramovich, a subject that troubled most of his predecessors and ultimately did for them. Whereas Scolari spoke to the Russian “four or five” times in the space of seven months, Hiddink and Abramovich have been almost inseparable for the past week, with the owner attending the win away to Watford and the reserve-team match against Portsmouth at Griffin Park, as well as making regular trips to the training ground. Not even Avram Grant was able to work in such close proximity to Abramovich.

“Let’s be realistic, Abramovich’s interest depends on results,” Hiddink said. “Of course he likes to see results, but there was no demand to ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. I cannot judge before, but what I have noticed in the last few days is that he is also at Cobham \. I respect the way he contributes to Russian football and every now and then we see each other to see how it is developing. We are not friends. Friends you see every day of the week and they know all the bad things about you.

“We don’t talk a lot about the specific tactics or strategy. We talk generally about football and he loves it. He watches a lot of games live and on the TV. He can enjoy it when he is watching. For instance, this week at Brentford with the reserves, I looked at the players and also 180 degrees to see that he is enjoying watching young players. He loves it. He is not just showing off.”

The one big question mark against Hiddink is his lack of success at a leading European club, with his spell at Real Madrid a decade ago lasting half a season. Hiddink was sacked at the Bernabéu after falling out with Lorenzo Sanz, the the Real president, but does not envisage any problem with Abramovich, as long as the owner does not attempt to pick the team.

“I did that job ten years ago and we got this clash after winning the World Club Cup,” he said. “There was a little bit of a clash with me and the president about playing some players whom he liked to have played in the squad. Then you know what the consequences in a few weeks are.”

The only other doubt surrounds Hiddink’s absence from the club game for several years, although in this respect it would be unfair to compare him to Scolari, who had never worked at a European club before arriving at Chelsea. Hiddink took PSV Eindhoven to a Champions League semi-final as recently as four years ago — he won the European Cup for the club in 1988 — and any doubts over his stamina should be allayed by the fact that he was also coaching Australia at the time, a far more challenging commute.

“I’ve been in national team management for the last few years but recently I was also at a very respected club, PSV Eindhoven,” he said. “Every morning I am on time to Cobham so I don’t forget. I don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m national team manager, I don’t have to go. Oh, when is next game? March? Oh, I can sleep for three weeks.’ I love working daily with the lads.

“When I worked in Spain in the 1990s, I said to myself that I’d quit and do something different, but that was around ten or 12 years ago. As long as I like the job, I’ll cope with the pressure. As long as it isn’t paralysing me and gives me energy, I can go on for a few months or years.”

As for his ambitions for the rest of the season, the job description is very simple — qualify for the Champions League next season and anything else is a bonus. Hiddink admitted as much yesterday when his eyes almost glazed over at the dreamy prospect of running Manchester United close in the Premier League and reaching the Champions League final.

“Finishing second to Manchester United and getting to the Champions League final sounds like a movie,” he said. “That would be a beautiful end to the season. You’ve given me a good idea and we’ll work on that. That would be very OK.”

Such achievements were not enough to stop Grant being sacked last season, the one fact that seemed to elude Hiddink on an impressive debut in front of the cameras, but that was then and this is now. As the beaming smile on his face testified, Hiddink has nothing to lose.

Before the axe fell

When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in July 2003, he said: “We have no plans to change the management here at the moment.” This is what Guus Hiddink’s four predecessors had to say.

Claudio Ranieri (September 2000 to June 2004)

“I don’t know Mr Abramovich and I would like to speak to him. To be honest, I don’t know anything about these rumours regarding the new owners and another manager. But I do know the rules of the game, and that when control of a club passes from one man to another anything can happen.” — July 4, 2003

José Mourinho (June 2004 to September 2007)

“Please don’t call me arrogant. What I am saying is true because I’m a European champion. I’m not one from the bottle, I’m a special one.” — June 2, 2004:

Avram Grant (September 2007 to May 2008)

“I am not a special one, I am a normal person. I did not get the job because I am a friend of Roman Abramovich. I remember when Arsène Wenger came here, people said, ’Arsène who?’ and he did a great job.” — September 21, 2007

Luiz Felipe Scolari (July 2008 to February 2009)

“I’m special for my friends, family and country — as a manager I’m so-so. I’ve always been a fighter. Until now, everything I have fought for and tried to achieve I have done. Even when it was very difficult, I got there. My team will be the same.” — July 8, 2008