Chelsea come up against a PSG side burdened with expectation on Wednesday. The French capital giants have Ligue 1 sewn up, with their only true barometer of success coming in Europe.
The same can’t be said of Guus Hiddink's side. Defeat will not plunge the Blues back into their early season malaise. And history suggests this is exactly when they thrive: under an interim manager with little pressure, preparing to lead a derided squad into battle...
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AVRAM GRANT (Sep 2007 – May 2008). Win percentage: 67
2007-2008 Chelsea Avram Grant and fans
Image credit: Reuters
A reign that began with dissenting masses chanting Jose Mourinho’s name, concluded with a patch of slippery turf denying Chelsea and Avram Grant an elusive Champions League crown.
While not officially an interim appointment, most observers viewed Grant’s role as temporary – even when he was handed a four-year deal just months after taking over. The unqualified Israeli guided the Blues to second in the Premier League and a League Cup final. Had John Terry not slipped while taking a penalty in the shootout against Manchester United in Moscow, Grant would have filled a special place in Blues folklore.
Why did it work? The club needed to move on from the confrontational Mourinho. Terry was unhappy, the dressing room was fractious and there were divisions between manager and board, stemming namely from the arrival of sporting director Frank Arnesen from Tottenham. What better way for Roman Abramovich to sooth tensions than appoint a mate? Grant was supposedly branded “an idiot” by anonymous Chelsea players following his appointment. But football is a fickle sport. Chelsea started winning; the quarrels were forgotten. Grant’s unprovocative style helped the club rebuild – and almost create history.
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GUUS HIDDINK (Feb 2009 – May 2009). Win percentage: 73
Guus Hiddink, FA Cup
Image credit: AFP
Chelsea were flying under Luiz Felipe Scolari in November as they tussled with Liverpool at the Premier League summit. By February, it had unravelled. With limited pressure, Hiddink guided the Blues to a monumental 2.62 points per game – enough for third – and FA Cup glory. It was sufficient to earn him a second crack in 2016…
Why did it work? The team lacked direction under Scolari. When his full-backs were exposed – and Deco’s early promise faded – the Brazilian had no "Plan B". Step forward, Mr Hiddink. He didn’t do anything spectacular, although Deco was quickly shifted to the periphery. Confidence soon flowed through a talented squad, while luck played a part too. The three games Hiddink actually won to clinch the FA Cup? Coventry City away, then Arsenal and Everton at Wembley. Hardly the trickiest of runs, but history will nevertheless remember Hiddink as a big success.
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ROBERTO DI MATTEO (Mar 2012 – Nov 2012) – Win percentage: 57 (dropped after permanent appointment)
Roberto Di Matteo after Chelsea's UCL win in 2012
Image credit: AFP
As Roberto Di Matteo clawed his arms around his troops, who wasn’t getting swept along in the emotion? Chelsea had just overturned a three-goal first-leg deficit in the Champions League last 16 against Napoli – winning via Branislav Ivanovic’s extra-time strike. After the misery of Andre Villas-Boas’ short tenure, there was suddenly a siege mentality amongst the Chelsea troops: "maybe we can win the Champions League". They stifled Barcelona in the Camp Nou before beating Bayern Munich in a penalty shootout in the final. Di Matteo had ended the hunt for that European title.
Why did it work? It couldn’t fail after the Napoli win. Di Matteo had to navigate three months, with no concern for long-term strategy. His squad was depleted, so league results were ignored. The fixation on a European title was enough motivation for the players – and whether the Italian really added anything is a case for debate, although his most important contribution was clearly releasing AVB’s shackles.
Again, luck was influential: Arjen Robben missed a penalty in the Champions League final, so too Lionel Messi at the semi-final stage. Di Matteo profited from the mess of his predecessor and harnessed the momentum to achieve the near-impossible. However, once the hype had calmed down, it became abundantly clear Di Matteo wasn’t actually a manager to help the Blues long-term...
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RAFA BENITEZ (Nov 2012 – May 2013) – Win percentage: 58
Chelsea's manager Rafael Benitez holds up the trophy after his team won their Europa League Final soccer match against Benfica at the Amsterdam Arena in Amsterdam May 15, 2013. REUTERS
Image credit: Reuters
And so onto Rafa Benitez, the most derided of Chelsea’s caretaker managers. A narky support harmed the Spaniard’s integration, with venomous booing the soundtrack to a shocking start, but he still led them to the Europa League title and third in the Premier League. Back-to-back continental triumphs for Chelsea – both achieved by temporary bosses.
Why did it work? Did it actually? Again, silverware was produced, but fortune and reality must not be overlooked. Chelsea were marginally better in the league – their biggest peak coinciding with the final stretch of Benitez’s reign – while the Europa League triumph was hardly miraculous. Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest, Rubin Kazan, Basel and Benfica. The Europa League wasn’t what it is now – and, for Chelsea, it was only possible after failure to progress in the Champions League. No wonder everyone was so keen for another run with Mourinho…
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WHY HAVE CHELSEA HAD SUCCESS UNDER TEMPORARY STEWARDSHIP?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Each caretaker boss has simply had to address the notable flaws of the previous regime:
- Mourinho was divisive. Solution: don’t cause controversy.
- Scolari persisted with a failed formula. Solution: change your approach.
- AVB attempted to transform the club overnight. Solution: cede control back to older players, ease constraints.
- Di Matteo (the permanent one) was found out. Solution: do nothing radical whatsoever.
Four approaches, each with an obvious method of solving it. It’s not surprising then that Hiddink’s approach post-Mourinho II was not drastic – rather avoid uproar, while coaxing the players back to their lofty abilities.
Of course, success is weighted in favour of interim managers taking over mid-season, given trophies are largely dished out in May. Disillusioned players can temporarily drop grievances to win something, in the knowledge the new bloke barking orders is only sticking around until the summer anyway.
In fact, there’s a very serious case that Chelsea should abolish the idea of a permanent manager altogether. Firing managers has not blocked Abramovich from succeeding – and his ruthlessness has often been vindicated. Maybe rolling contracts are the way forward at Stamford Bridge. Even Ray Wilkins and Steve Holland have 100 per cent records from their solitary games at the helm. The cut-throat board, temperamental players and expectant fans create a difficult atmosphere for a long-term thinking manager. Better to get someone consumed by the immediate future…
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WHY THERE IS HOPE FOR CHELSEA IN 2016
The season was already over. Hiddink arrived with the easiest of briefs: steer Chelsea away from the relegation zone – the same Chelsea side, by and large, that won the Premier League last May.
Forget their league position, forget their early misery. Chelsea are back on the rails, unbeaten domestically since December, with their gaping flaws addressed by the Dutchman. Had they displayed this form all season, it would be them and Leicester City battling it out for the title. Put simply: the squad that became so adept at grinding out results last season has returned.
Chelsea can forget their top-four aspirations. They can go all-out for another European crown – with the same mentality of the Di Matteo caretaker spell, but – crucially – a far superior squad. If they can overturn the deficit against PSG – and there is no reason they cannot – they will have the momentum and belief that another trophy is possible.
Barcelona are all-conquerable, supposedly. Only Bayern Munich and Real Madrid can topple them. Well, chuck a new name into that chasing pack: Chelsea. It’s a touch early to put their name in the quarter-final hat – let alone engrave it on the trophy – but their past shows that interim managers get the results and the fortune when it counts.