Morale: high. Hiddink’s start: good. The world: set to rights again. Amazing what a 1-0 win can do. After a few months of footballing purgatory the spirit of Chelsea was re-awakened at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon with a battling display reminiscent of those glory days which we all crave. Whether it was just the wave of optimism around the appointment of Hiddink, or just the supposed ‘new manager’ phenomenon, it seemed as if we had an extra 20% to give, player by player, and the neat passing game with little end product we had played under Scolari was transformed into a bossy, dominative style of play which, although not perfect, bagged a valuable three points in what could be described as a Champions League qualification six-pointer.
Aside from the obvious monetary benefits from making it into Europe’s elite competition, it’s nights like Wednesday which we would miss if we managed to throw it all away and finish fifth. It would be Thursday evenings against clubs like – and I mean no disrespect…but still, take a look at the names and note the lack of glamour – Maccabi Netanya, Vojvodina, and Tottenham Hotspur. Compare and contrast with the mighty Juventus, the ‘Old Lady’ of Italian football, and our visitors to the Bridge this week.
The most successful team in Italian football, with 27 Serie A titles (I wonder if they bang on about them like Liverpool?), and two Champions League successes (as well as being five-time runners-up) among a whole host of other pieces of silverware, Juventus are a prime example of who we want to be playing, and significantly, who we want to be beating. As if the night wasn’t primed enough, we will be welcoming back an old friend in Claudio Ranieri.
A former Blues boss who was unfortunate to resemble more of a genial grandfather rather than a shrewd tactician, Ranieri was nonetheless loved by the Stamford Bridge crowd, who gave him an emotional send-off after he was ruthlessly dispatched by whoever makes the decisions at Chelsea. He returns with a strong Juventus squad who currently sit in second place in Serie A, nine points behind José Mourinho’s imperious Inter Milan, and fresh from a 2-0 away victory against Palermo at the weekend, with goals coming from ex-Liverpool mistake, sorry, midfielder Momo Sissoko, and French striker David Trezeguet.
Ranieri’s squad reads like a who’s who of world football, with plenty of notable names amongst the Juventus ranks. Captained by legendary striker – and all-round good guy- Alessandro Del Piero, they can also call upon the talents of arguably the world’s best ‘keeper – sorry Petr – Gianluigi Buffon, and a defence which includes the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Jonathan Zebina, Cristiano Zanetti, and ex-Aston Villa man Olof Mellberg, who completed a switch to the Turin outfit in the summer. Pavel Nedved, Mauro Camoranesi and ex-Blue Tiago provide some creativity in midfield while up-front, Trezeguet is ably supported by Amauri or Italian international Vincenzo Iaquinta.
However, as we have seen on occasions this season, it takes more than names to win games. Juventus have lost five games this campaign, including two in the last five matches against Udinese and Cagliari. Our form is similar, albeit with just the Liverpool defeat blighting our last five record, but the Villa win should feel like more than just a routine victory. It was hopefully a sign of things to come under Hiddink, and he gave a fair reflection of how he wants us to play between now and the end of May.
Ricardo Carvalho could be in line for a return to the first-team, but it seems as if the Dutch boss has settled on a solid starting XI, even though it contains Salomon Kalou. Ashley Cole is available for selection after missing the Villa game due to a domestic suspension, while loan signing Ricardo Quaresma is ineligible as he has already played in the Champions League for Inter Milan this season.
Although it is usually preferable to play the second leg at home, we can still gain an advantage at the Bridge on Wednesday before heading off to Italy in a couple of weeks time. Ranieri is no doubt set for a tremendous reception, but the Tinkerman won’t be trying to do us any favours.