Hiddink heads to Villa for baptism of fire

LONDON - Chelsea's stuttering season starts afresh on Saturday when Guus Hiddink takes them to Aston Villa, with the improving Midlanders looking down from third spot in the Premier League at the fourth-placed Londoners.

That is not a situation owner Roman Abramovich envisaged when he recruited Luiz Felipe Scolari as manager before the start of the season.

Abramovich would hardly have considered the prospect of trailing leaders Manchester United by 10 points with 13 games remaining but that is the situation Chelsea are in after sacking Scolari last week.

New manager Hiddink, who took his first training session on Monday, will be expected to turn things round quickly, having been encouraged by the display in last weekend's 3-1 FA Cup win at Watford.

Nicolas Anelka scored a hat-trick to take his season's tally to 20 but it was the contribution and demeanour of Didier Drogba that might turn out to be the most important development.

Drogba has been a peripheral figure for most of an injury-hit season, with Scolari saying he could not adjust his preferred 4-3-3 system in order to play him and Anelka as a twin strikeforce.


When stand-in manager Ray Wilkins put the two together in the middle of the attack for the last 20 minutes at Watford, Chelsea took total control and both forwards were quick to talk up their fledgling partnership.

"There is something between us, we are both quite intelligent players who know how to play together and create spaces for one another," Drogba said.

"The important thing for me now is simply to be on the pitch. It is up to me to show I deserve to be on the pitch. I hadn't lost my instincts, I just lacked matches."

Anelka said: "Of course we can work as a partnership. I have said it before and so has Didier but Scolari never tried playing us together."

Chelsea certainly needed something to galvanise a team that appeared to be drifting in Scolari's last few weeks in charge.

Hiddink's first job is a tough one, though. Villa's 3-1 FA Cup defeat at Everton last week was their first domestic loss in 16 matches and their only home defeat in the league came against Middlesbrough in November.

Defeat for Chelsea in the early kickoff would open the door still further for Manchester United when they entertain Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford in the evening game.

Arsenal, five points behind Chelsea in fifth, host Sunderland. The Gunners have been buoyed by the return of striker Eduardo da Silva, who scored twice in Monday's FA Cup win over Cardiff City.

However the Croatian, who broke his leg a year ago, is doubtful with a tight hamstring.

Steven Gerrard's hamstring is also likely to keep him out of Liverpool's home game with Manchester City on Sunday when victory is essential if Rafa Benitez's second-placed side are to maintain their challenge for a first league title in 19 years.