Guus Hiddink and Chelsea saw the magic come to a deflating end against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, as a Luka Modric’s strike in the 50th minute put a serious dent in the West London club’s title chances. After the improvement in form that always seems to come with a change in managers, Chelsea had won four straight, pulling themselves back into the title race in the process. Events around the league conspired to make Chelsea’s match with Tottenham their most critical to date, and Guus Hiddink’s first loss as manager could not have come at a worse time.
Hiddink, despite rampant speculation about his future at both Chelsea and as the Russia manager, managed to bring his club to life over the past month. After showing every indication of fading from the race under Scolari, Chelsea seemed dead in the water, more likely to play for position in the top four than for a shot at the Premiership title.
Enter the Dutchman, and suddenly everything seemed right again. Players who had chafed under the Brazilian came to life under Hiddink, and while catching front-runners Manchester United seemed somewhat unlikely, Chelsea put themselves in position to capitalize on any points dropped by their northern rivals. The winning streak gave them hope, with a strong title push possible thanks to a remaining schedule littered with bottom half and relegation zone clubs.
More significant than the arrival of Hiddink, however, was the return of midfield stalwart Michael Essien. Chelsea never seemed quite right without Essien patrolling the middle of the pitch, and his insertion back into the starting lineup after a lengthy injury stint was just the tonic Chelsea needed. A new manager and the resulting dressing-room enthusiam, the return of a midfield workhorse, and a gap to the top that remained within reach despite the premature coronation of Manchester United: everything Chelsea could have wanted seemed ready for the taking.
Add the knowledge, thanks to a late start caused by a suspicious vehicle at White Hart Lane, that United was struggling against mid-table side Fulham, and Chelsea should have been primed to jump on a golden opportunity. Instead, Spurs shut down Chelsea’s vaunted midfield, frustrated strikers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, and made the lone goal of the match stand up.
So what went wrong?
Perhaps Chelsea simply locked up, simply froze in the face of the opportunity presented them by United’s simultaneous struggles at Craven Cottage. Perhaps Hiddink forgot himself and let his mind wander to Russia’s upcoming World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan. Perhaps Spurs were just better, and Harry Redknapp’s own magic rose up to aid Tottenham’s effort.
Regardless, Chelsea let a chance to join Liverpool on sixty-four points, just one point behind leaders United, slip through their collective fingers. Liverpool’s thrashing of Aston Villa, combined with United’s meltdown against Fulham, created intrigue at the top of the table when it appeared that there would be none. If Chelsea had seized their opportunity the way that Liverpool did, two clubs would be hot on the heels of the leaders, a situation that could only make for a more dramatic finish to the season. While United still have a game in hand, and therefore control their own destiny, the pressure is now on.