February would see a major change at Chelsea, as Luis Felipe Scolari’s short reign as manager came to an end after a disjointed period in charge of the club.
Those Blues fans who had been calling for his head in previous weeks – and even months – were given more ammunition to use against the Brazilian World Cup winner following the first game of the month.
On February 1st Chelsea travelled to Anfield to take on title rivals Liverpool. The Reds had beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, and Scolari’s side were looking for a win of their own to keep the title challenge alive and perhaps win back some pride. Things did not exactly go to plan however, as a lifeless Chelsea struggled to create chances and test Liverpool throughout the game. They were further hindered with a ludicrous sending-off of inspirational midfielder Frank Lampard whose harmless challenge on Xabi Alonso was somehow deemed worthy of a red card by referee Mike Riley.
Down to ten men, Chelsea’s task was now even harder, and as the game reached the final minutes Fernando Torres scored a very late brace to give Liverpool a 2-0 win. Despite the sending-off, Chelsea were terrible throughout and could have probably played with 12 men and not scored.
The Saturday after, Chelsea were visited by Hull City who weren’t exactly setting the world alight following an impressive start to the season. The game was seen as a chance for the Blues to bounce back after the Liverpool defeat and prove that they were still serious title contenders.
What followed was 90 minutes of missed chances, disjointed play, and frustration in abundance as Hull hung on for a goalless draw. The final whistle was greeted with a chorus of boos from the Stamford Bridge crowd, with some fans unfurling a banner calling for Scolari’s sacking.
They soon got their wish.
Chelsea were fourth in the league and still in the FA Cup and Champions League, but Scolari’s overall performance was seen as inadequate. It was allegedly Roman Abramovich who lost patience with the Brazilian, but in truth many fans had been calling for Scolari’s dismissal long before Roman made the call. Rumours of dressing room bust-ups and lax training regimes had been circulating in the newspapers for months, while some performances on the pitch spoke for themselves.
Life without Scolari went on and just a few days after his departure Chelsea announced they had secured the services of Russia boss Guus Hiddink until the end of the season.
Abramovich’s close links with the Russian national side enabled the deal to go through, and with “Lucky Guus’” glittering CV, the Dutchman was seen as the perfect man to lead the Blues until the end of the season.
But while the appointment was being finalised, Chelsea had to travel to Watford for an FA Cup fifth round tie under the temporary leadership of assistant manager Ray Wilkins. Hiddink looked on from the stands as the Blues dominated the early proceedings only to fall behind mid-way through the second-half.
Tamas Priskin caught Chelsea unawares on the counter-attack and it seemed as if the Blues problems extended further than managerial appointments. But a 15 minute hat-trick from Nicolas Anelka turned the game on its head and sent Chelsea through to a quarter-final match against Coventry. The Hiddink effect had already begun, even if he was just a casual observer this time.
Hiddink’s first proper game was tough on paper; an away match against Aston Villa at a ground where the Blues often struggled to get results. Villa were third in the table, but Chelsea leapfrogged the Champions League hopefuls with a valuable 1-0 win courtesy of another Anelka goal.
Another 1-0 win followed (tight wins – reminiscent of someone perhaps?) in the Champions League as Chelsea edged past Juventus in the first leg of the first knockout round of Europe’s elite competition. Didier Drogba – marginalised by Scolari – appeared rejuvenated under Hiddink and proved he still possessed his goalscoring touch at Stamford Bridge. Although Juventus – and their former Blues boss Claudio Ranieri – threatened heavily in the second-half of the game, Chelsea hung on resiliently for the win.
Unbeaten under Hiddink, the Blues looked to extend their record three days later with a league game against Wigan at the Bridge. A spectacular opener from John Terry seemed to set Chelsea on their way but further chances seemed to evade them. With the score 1-0 and time running out, Wigan shocked the home side with an equaliser as Oliver Kapo capitalised on some dodgy Blues defending.
1-1 and it appeared as if it was the same old story yet again for Chelsea as they were punished for failing to kill off a visiting side. But then, with just seconds remaining in the game, the ever-reliable Lampard popped up with a vital headed equaliser to take all three points. A relieved Stamford Bridge exhaled, and Guus Hiddink maintained his perfect start as Chelsea boss.
As a tumultuous month came to an end, most fans were thinking the same thing about Hiddink: can we keep him? All was to be revealed in March.