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Hiddink's grounds for optimism

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Phil McNulty | 16:03 GMT, Saturday, 21 February 2009

Chelsea's group hug at the final whistle was a symbolic gesture to silence talk of a divided camp - of more interest to new coach Guus Hiddink will be a display that showed real substance still exists at Stamford Bridge.

It is fanciful to claim Hiddink's new charges produced compelling evidence to suggest Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United face a renewed threat to their supremacy, or that his brief reign will bring a guarantee of silverware.

The air of invincibilty Chelsea carried for so long has been stripped away and they are still clearly a team in need of renovation.

But a victory at Villa Park is an outstanding start and there was enough on offer, particularly during a flowing first half, to give Hiddink genuine optimism for his temporary tenure.

Chelsea were assisted, in no small measure, by Villa's failure to rouse themselves into serious action until the start of the second half, by which time Nicolas Anelka's trademark finish had already put Hiddink on the path to his first three points.

Martin O'Neill's side, normally so powerful and pacy, looked heavy-legged and allowed Hiddink's revamped Chelsea side to establish the supremacy that provided the platform for a win that keeps them on the margins of the title race.

The credits in Hiddink's ledger will come mainly from that first 45 minutes, when Chelsea played with a fluidity and freedom that was missing in the dying days of Luiz Felipe Scolari's regime.

Frank Lampard again showed what store Hiddink must place in him, creating Anelka's goal with a moment of individual brilliance that some of his more misplaced critics claim is beyond him.

Michael Ballack looked enlivened in central midfield, a contrast to the peripheral figure of recent times, while Hiddink will have been encouraged by his decision to pair Anelka and Didier Drogba in attack.

Anelka and Drogba do not look a natural fit as a partnership, but there is no shortage of ability - if Hiddink can be the alchemist that makes the formula work he will have a formidable force to call on.

Drogba at least put himself about and muscled his way around Villa's defence in a manner he appeared to have forgotten. This was hardly classic Drogba, but at least he showed the interest that was markedly absent at Liverpool and that is a base for Hiddink to work from.

hiddink

Hiddink was pleased with the pair afterwards, although his comments about their need to work as a defensive force as well as an attacking threat suggested the link is a work in progress.

But there were flashes of the dominant Chelsea of old in the opening period, when they passed with authority and barely allowed a lacklustre Villa any sort of foothold in the game.

Hiddink will also have been pleased with the defensive resilience Chelsea showed in the second half, when they came under a siege of sorts from Villa and goalkeeper Petr Cech was able to make some confidence-building saves.

The concern remains that this Chelsea side is easier to lay a glove on than teams of previous vintage.

This was a result achieved in the manner of a Mourinho side, early goal followed by victory, but there was a still an element of discomfort in the closing stages that hinted at the problems they have suffered recently.

Villa took territorial advantage for long periods after the break as Chelsea themselves appeared to tire, something Hiddink has already started to address with a more vigorous training regime.

Hiddink will soon be able to call on Ricardo Carvalho and Ashley Cole once more, while the return of Michael Essien to midfield in March will give Chelsea an extra dimension in various parts of the pitch.

Villa, for their part, can draw consolation from the fact that they were bitterly disappointed at not getting at least a point from Chelsea. As O'Neill said, this in itself is a sign of their progress this season.

Hiddink will now turn his attention to making progress in the Champions League against Juventus and building on this fine victory.

It was not a performance that erases Chelsea's troubles or elevates them back to being Manchester United's main title threat, but there can be genuine cause for pleasure in the opening game of the Hiddink era.

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