The season has obviously not gone to plan for Chelsea, but what is the mood like right now?
It’s more upbeat. The league form has improved under Guus Hiddink. They’re unbeaten under him, although they’ve drawn a few too many games, which is why they’re still mid-table, rather than really threatening the likes of Southampton. But they’ve found their form just when it matters most, regarding the FA Cup and Champions League, and they still have ambitions of winning both, although clearly the FA Cup is far more realistic. They’ve had two successive 5-1 home victories, against Newcastle and albeit a weakened Manchester City side, and played pretty well against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last week. The atmosphere under Hiddink is far more harmonious and the players enjoy playing under him more than the latter period of José Mourinho’s time at the club.
Just how much of an impact has Hiddink had then, and what has he done to change things?
Clearly, he’s had a massive impact. They’ve only lost one match so far, and that was the one against PSG. The biggest impact he’s made is he’s got the players enjoying their football again, and noticeably he’s brought out massive improvement in Chelsea’s key players, particularly Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa. Those two were shadows of the players they were last season, for whatever reason, at the start of this season. Costa wasn’t scoring and Fàbregas wasn’t making assists, and if you think back to why Chelsea won the league last season it was because of those two things. Hiddink has this very warm nature about him that the players enjoy. He did a very similar role in 2009 when he took over from [Luiz Felipe] Scolari. The players love playing for him. As John Obi Mikel said the other day, he just gets players to relax and enjoy their football and many of the players now want him to stay on as manager next season. I don’t think that will happen, but it just shows how comfortable they are playing under him.
You mentioned the FA Cup and Champions League, but what are the ambitions for the remainder of the season when it comes to the Premier League?
Top four has, obviously, long since disappeared as a possibility. Now they’ve turned the corner, they’ve got 12 games left – that’s quite a lot of points to play for – and the gap to Southampton is seven points, so they will still think they can be caught. A top-six finish would by no means salvage their reputation, but it would sort of limit the damage.
What is Chelsea’s style of play like right now, and has it differed from when the teams met earlier in the season?
It’s changed, mainly because they’re far more attacking. As the team conceded more and more goals Mourinho sort of became more negative. Now they commit more players going forward. Fàbregas is getting more time on the ball and starting to play more fluently and with more freedom. They’re still questionable defensively, they can still be got at on the counter attack, but they are giving teams more to worry about in the final third now. Costa’s playing much more in the penalty area and running in behind defenders. The best way to sum it up is they’re playing a bit more like they were last season, and if you were Southampton you would be thinking stopping Fàbregas dictating play in midfield is one of the key factors in stopping Chelsea, because his relationship with Costa, putting passes through for him, has noticeably improved in the last few months and has made Chelsea a far more formidable outfit.
Are those two Chelsea’s key men right now?
Yes, Costa and Fàbregas have been Chelsea’s best players since Hiddink arrived, but another who’s had a bit of a renaissance is John Obi Mikel. He’s had a very good relationship with Hiddink, dating back to 2009, and is playing far more than he was before. He just gives Fàbregas that licence to go and do what he wants to do in an offensive way, and worry a bit less about the tracking back, which is almost what he became more asked to do under Mourinho by the end. It would also be silly not to talk about Willian, who’s been Chelsea’s best player all season. Even when they were poor, he, as an individual, was fantastic. He works tirelessly on the right-hand side, both at the attacking end and tracking back. He really has been an outstanding and consistent performer, and you could argue would be worthy of being talked about as one of the best performers in the Premier League.
What sort of a game are you expecting, and how do you see it going?
Southampton are in great form themselves, and keeping clean sheets on a regular basis, so it’s going to be very difficult for Chelsea, who will be looking for a bit of revenge for that 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge. I would imagine Southampton would play in a very similar way. They were very dangerous on the counter attack and just picked Chelsea off, but Chelsea are a much better team going forward and Southampton will find it a bit harder to keep that clean sheet, so I can see this ending in a 1-1 draw.