With the short but successful Hiddink era is over and Carlo Ancelotti likely to take charge, the FA Cup winners must choose who stays and who goes.
Now Chelsea have decisions to make
WEMBLEY // Tempting as it is to ponder the image of the reclusive Russian owner and the 62-year-old Dutchman dancing to the African rhythms in an impromptu dressing room party in the bowels of Wembley, altogether different movements at Chelsea will acquire a greater significance.
Their FA Cup final victory over Everton ended one era, albeit a brief one, as Guus Hiddink exited. Another should commence when Carlo Ancelotti replaces him. The arrivals and departures lounges at Stamford Bridge should be occupied by high-profile players, with CSKA Moscow's Russia international Yuri Zhirkov expected to be the first recruit. Hiddink became the fourth manager in 21 months to step down, though the first of his own volition and the first to retain a position at the club. Given a newly created role as technical adviser, it is to be presumed Roman Abramovich will heed his assessment of Chelsea.
"They've had too many changes," he said and, as Chelsea have had as many managers in two seasons as Manchester United have employed since 1972, that is undeniable. "They recognise that themselves. Stability is key for the club. You need a short-term strategy and a long-term strategy to build a team. There are high demands but this team can and must deliver." Hiddink himself represented the perfect short-term fix, an antidote to Chelsea's problems under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Capable of making a swift assessment of his new charges and rallying a disparate group of players, he reconnected them with a formula for success that Jose Mourinho designed.
That the Portuguese's influence still looms large over Stamford Bridge was confirmed when the build-up to the final was overshadowed by Claude Makelele's disputed allegations that John Terry played a part in Mourinho's sacking. In the process, it highlighted Hiddink's achievements. A club where player power had festered has resembled a happy camp. Hiddink, who is returning to manage Russia full time said: "The working attitude from everyone was superb. Having a team with big-name players, you have to put them on the bench, but they accepted it."
That reflects well on the Dutchman's communication skills. In contrast, Ancelotti is yet to talk publicly in English. His intentions last summer, according to excerpts from his autobiography, were to only add two creators, Xabi Alonso and Franck Ribery. One year on, the question remains the same: comparative continuity or an immediate overhaul of the playing personnel? While Ancelotti is accustomed to operating with an aged side at AC Milan, only John Obi Mikel of those selected to start at Wembley is under 26, Mourinho's men remain near their peak, but for how much longer?
Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard delivered the goals to defeat Everton. At 31 and 30 respectively, they rank among the many experienced players. Ancelotti's verdict on Drogba, who veers from indefensible or impossible to defend against, will be instructive. One of the senior citizens guaranteed to stay, despite losing his place to Mikel, is Michael Ballack. The 32-year-old German announced he had agreed an extended contract. A voice of realism, he immedia-tely admitted that Chelsea's aims extend beyond retaining the FA Cup and underlined the scale of Ancelotti's task.
"You always want to win something you haven't won," said the midfielder. "Next year, the focus like always will be on the Premier League and the Champions League. It is not always like it was under Guus where somebody comes in and the team starts winning straight away: that is not normal." It is not. But besides securing silverware, Hiddink also raised the bar for his successor and enabled Chelsea to postpone decisions about the long-term direction of the club and the futures of the most successful side in their history. Now such choices must be made as, despite his designation as technical adviser, the Dutchman has consigned himself to their past. Nostalgia doesn't normally set in within the space of a few days, but Chelsea may soon reflect wistfully on the three, heady months when they danced to Hiddink's tune.