The Observer, Paul Wilson: "Guus Hiddink achieved something not even Jose Mourinho managed when his first match in charge saw Chelsea take all three points from Villa Park. The last time that happend was in 1999, when the two sides were managed by John Gregory and Gianluca Vialli."
Sunday Telegraph, Patrick Barclay: "To the neutral, the attraction of this match was the opportunity it afforded Aston Villa to embed themselves in the top four at the possible expense of Chelsea. But it was evident, even in the 18 minutes before Nicolas Anelka scored the only goal, that the away team were the better equipped. And we should have been able to predict it."
Sunday Times, Joe Lovejoy: "Here’s to the new boss — same as the old boss. Guus Hiddink had the victory he and his team needed in his first match in charge but the new Chelsea, as they were billed, looked much like the model that got Jose Mourinho sacked in September 2007, grinding out an amply deserved but uninspiring 1-0 victory to leapfrog Villa and take third place in the table."
Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: "Guus Hiddink was delighted with Chelsea’s attitude and ability as they won his first official match in charge, beating Aston Villa 1-0 to move above them to third place in the Premier League. Nicolas Anelka scored the goal, his 21st of the season, having been picked as well as Didier Drogba for the second successive week."
Official Chelsea FC Website: "Nicolas Anelka continued on from his hat-trick at Watford with his first league goal in two months. The win takes Chelsea back above Aston Villa."
Aston Villa Blog: "Bottom line, Guus Hiddink did his homework. He came to Villa Park in the week and saw exactly what our game was all about and dealt with it. Hell, with the quality of the Chelsea defence and the height at which we put the balls in, they had plenty of time to sort themselves out in the actual game and he didn’t need to come see the match."
So the start of yet another manager’s reign would be at our snottiest of bogey grounds. No win in 10 years’ worth of visits to Villa Park, which included the infamous Roman walk out last season, although I remember that match for another reason; the strange Elvis like haircut of Jose on that day, which must have been a sign that things weren’t all rosy in The Special One’s mind. But back to today.
Guus’ short Chelsea career has already brought with it a huge wave of optimism and hype amongst some sections of the media and fans. His opening gambit of “we can still be champions” was about as believable as a Peter Kenyon vote of confidence but it helped to bring some belief to a Chelsea squad full of cliques, divisions and egos. He then stepped up training and made some revolutionary changes such as pairing Drogba and Anelka together at Cobham, not giving the team two days off after a weekend game and making the whole squad take a fitness test to shock them into getting fit after spending seven months at Big Phil’s Holiday Camp. He followed this with a trip to the reserve match against Pompey with his BFF Mr. A and he even had time to pay a flying visit to Villa Park on a scouting mission to assess how good his first opponents really are. Roman was of course at his side. He rounded off proceedings with an 8:00 a.m. press conference on Friday where he again stated that he’d only be helping out his best mate for three months and then running back home to Russia before he gets an added ingredient in his tea and starts losing his hair and getting pale. He appeared calm, confident and authoritative answering a range of questions in English, Dutch and Russian. Everything seemed perfect as the side got on the bus to Birmingham, each one of them knowing the importance of this match. A must-win? In my mind it was, not to keep us in the title race (there is no race if there’s only one team in it) but to show people that the real Chelsea were back.
The Stamford Bridge open day brought up a number of possibilities as to how Guus would announce himself to the Premier League. Cult hero, Ferreira would of course come in at left-back to cover for one of our best players this year, Ashley Cole, but who would partner JT? Would he use the pace of Mancienne? More intriguingly, would he go 4-4-2 with Didier and Nico picking up where they left off at Watford? In the end it was business as usual. We saw a 4-3-3 with Alex being used to combat Villa’s battering ram of Heskey and in the second half Carew and Nico again starting on the left wing.
Watching another manager trying to follow Jose’s 4-3-3 blueprint wouldn’t have filled many Chelsea fans with optimism but Guus did appear to have changed a few things. Nothing major but it was the subtle details which told me that we’d be seeing a return to the old Chelsea, the real Chelsea. The first example was at kick-off where JT decided to make Villa attack the Holte End in the first half, hopefully negating that strange second half phenomena when sides get a new lease of life when attacking their favoured end with time running out. I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more at Anfield and other bogey grounds but it was the sort of small detail which Jose never forgot. As play began the side looked fresh and fit, which is a surprise for a Chelsea XI. We zipped the ball around at a high tempo, playing with neat triangles and generally running freely around the Villa side. We also saw a return to the more direct “Didier-football” instead of that pointless sideways football we’ve been watching lately. Didier looked up for it and was charging around like the old Didier. Nico was given a free role and regularly switched positions with Didier and our midfield three were dictating play with ridiculous ease. We had a swagger about us, reminiscent of the Jose days and this was typified with the only goal of the match. We passed the ball quickly amongst our back-three triangle of Alex, JT and Mikel. The ball was switched to Bosingwa who helped it on to a surrounded Lampard. However, some Robinho-esque skill (I thought Phil said we didn’t have any special players) saw him escape Barry and Petrov, allowing him to slide in Anelka who chipped it over an on-rushing Friedel. It was a perfect goal, which reminded me again of the Jose days. We were controlling the game and then exploded into action with some brilliant skill and an exquisite finish. From then on we drove forward looking for that killer second goal. A well worked corner routine ended with a scuffed Drogba volley. This was followed with a scrambled Friedel save from a JT header and a dipping Lampard shot from 30 yards. The only danger Villa presented was from an embarrassing Heskey dive, some more inept Halsey refereeing and a Young free kick which smashed against the bar. All in all it was a great first half from us though.
The second half was again Jose-esque. We strode out, determined to close out the game and walk away with a precious 1-0 win. Some classic time-wasting, breaking up of play and resolute defending helped keep a resurgent Villa at bay. We struggled to get out of our half on occasions and Guus immediately responded with a Kalou-Deco sub in the 53rd minute, hoping the Portuguese magician could keep the ball and ease some of the growing pressure. However apart from some Barry long-shots and a barrage of long balls to Heskey, Carew and Agbonlahor, Villa didn’t look like a side heading for the Champions League. Some Deco magic at the corner flag almost set-up the second goal but Ballack’s thunderbolt was saved. We closed out the match with relative ease and the final whistle was greeted with a group hug and a very public showing of team spirit and unity. It may not have been on the scale of chucking their shirts into the crowd as on that famous night at Ewood Park but it was a sign that the real Chelsea were back.
- First half. Some brilliant football, played at a high tempo with the team enjoying this new beginning. A stunning goal was the least we deserved as the team piled forward on occasions, following Drogba’s lead and trying to kill the game before the half time whistle. It was a great start to the Guus era and perhaps the title race is still on? Actually, it’s not, but on this form we could go a long way in the Champions League before heroically losing to Messi and Co. in Rome.
- Second half. Just as good as the first half in my mind but in a different way. JT was determined to come away with a clean sheet and I loved seeing a Chelsea side cynically doing all they could to get the win. Bosingwa and Cech helped slow the game with some snail-like throw-ins and goal kicks but this half showed me that we still remember how to play like a title-chasing side. The result was all that mattered and 12 more wins like this could see us become champions! (I hate to admit it but I still think we can do it. Stranger things have happened.)
- Midfield. Mobile, fluid and generally brilliant. Lamps’ assist was stunning but today saw the return of the real Ballack. He even broke into a sprint at one point and throughout the 90 minutes they completely dominated Barry and Petrov.
- Drogba. We still need him. It’s as simple as that. He still looks rusty but when he wants to, he can play like a world-beater. His strength and power forces defences back and gives Lamps the freedom to attack but it was his strength, hold-up play and general effort which impressed me most. Brilliant.
- Cech. Looked a little more secure today which is a bonus.
- Mark Halsey. I thought he was poor today. Not only for his awful Heskey decision but he’s too fussy and too inconsistent. Plus the fact I think he’s a twat who has had it in for Chelsea ever since he refereed our Worthington Cup tie against Spurs and made some abysmal decisions on that night.
- Aston Villa. I’ve thought this for a while, but are Villa and O’Neill actually that good? O’Neill appears to be a worse tactician than Scolari, with his only tactic being long ball football to some tall strikers, hoping the pace of Young and Agbonlahor can do something special. But we exposed them today for what they are; a very simple team who have only got to where they are because the quality and consistency of the Big Four has dropped considerably since last season. They deserve praise for getting to the top four but their performance today was frankly awful. They had no ideas apart from giving it to Young on the left wing who would swing in another cross for Cech to claim easily for the 30th time. If that failed, they just lumped it forward to Heskey and Carew whose headers ended up in the arms of Cech. And if that failed, well they had no idea what to do next so they just ran around quickly and maybe a Barry long shot or set-piece could have saved them. We completely outplayed them and at this rate, even a poor Arsenal side should usurp them.
- Petr Cech – 7/10 – A calm and assertive performance where he dealt with every long ball and cross with consummate ease.
- Paulo Ferreira – 6/10 – A personal favourite and cult hero who always gets a great reception from the fans. Very steady and only one dodgy moment.
- Alex – 6/10 – Still don’t like him as he’s too slow and too cumbersome but his height was vital against Carew and Heskey. Not the best partner for JT and some awful defending against Agbonlahor nearly cost us.
- John Terry – 8/10 – An absolute rock who kept Villa at bay for the whole game. Would we really want to accept £50m for him?
- Jose Bosingwa – 6/10 – Didn’t go forward as much as usual but that was a positive in my mind. Played like a normal right-back and marked Young out of the game pretty well.
- John Obi Mikel – 6/10 – Still looks a little lacking in confidence but his height was again vital. Seemed to enjoy the greater movement of Lamps and Ballack.
- Michael Ballack – 7/10 – I’ll give him a 7 for his general movement and effort. Seemed a lot more interested and actually passed the ball to some blue shirts. His last minute strike would have been a worthy bonus.
- Frank Lampard – 8/10 – Some brilliant passing and a brilliant assist. What would we do without him?
- Salomon Kalou – 6/10 – Didn’t do much wrong to be taken off after 53 minutes but needs to improve his final ball.
- Nicolas Anelka – 8/10 – Awesome finish and enjoyed his free role from the left wing. Still looks more dangerous through the middle though.
- Didier Drogba – 8/10 – He was really up for it today and was back to his battering ram best. It was a return to the old Didier and with him getting a run in the side, he’ll be crucial for potential Champions League success.
- Deco (sub) – 6/10 – Helped keep the ball and his last minute skills were brilliant. Despite this he’ll be sold this summer and has no chance of starting once Essien returns in a few weeks.
- Guus Hiddinck – 8/10 – Set the team up brilliantly to get the 1-0 win and showed some tactical flexibility. Made an immediate sub when he saw Villa were starting to control the second half and appears a better bet than Scolari ever did on the touchline.
Man of the Match
It could have been anyone from JT, Lamps, Anelka and Didier. My choice would be Didier on this occasion. He may not have scored and Lamps’ assist was brilliant but Didier showed today that he was back. When he plays well, we play well and unfortunately this side seems unable to move on without him. The plan was to sell him this summer but Anelka simply can’t do it by himself and in a direct 4-3-3 there’s still no-one better than an on form Didier Drogba.
In the end it was a vital win for us. It was crucial we kept the momentum going which started against Watford but more importantly we had to make a statement today. Everyone was waiting for Villa to wipe the floor with us as they’re the side on the up and we’re supposedly sinking like a lead balloon. But today showed everyone we can still do it. We’ve still got some great players in this side and Guus obviously wanted us to remember what it was like playing in a Jose style. We got the important goal from some brilliant football and then shut up shop and ground out the victory. Guus only cares about the results and if we can continue in this manner then we can still win something. The Premier League may be beyond us but we can still win the Champions League. The Champions League is not about performances and only requires you to perform in one-off big games. After today, I’m looking forward to the Juve game, really believing that we can still end up getting to Rome. Some say that optimism always arrives with a new manager but I never really had that feeling under Big Phil. I never took to him but Guus seems a different character and more Jose like and everyone knows that anyone who manages like Jose will have my support.