MILTON KEYNES, United Kingdom: Chelsea’s dismal Premier League title defense means the FA Cup now carries even greater significance as interim manager Guus Hiddink attempts to avoid a trophy-free end to the season.
Hiddink’s side travel to struggling second-tier side Milton Keynes Dons in the competition’s fourth round on Sunday and having finally struck a decent vein of form, they will be expected to progress comfortably.
With next month’s Champions League last 16 game against Paris Saint-Germain looming, the FA does not represent the Stamford Bridge club’s last chance of silverware.
But it is probably their most realistic chance of salvaging a trophy from a calamitous campaign and Hiddink is keen to repeat his success of 2009, when he led the club to FA Cup success against Everton.
“It’s not just for me,” he said. “I think a club like Chelsea must always go for a title.
“The targets in the past were the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup. We aim the group for targets. The FA Cup is a target.”
Hiddink has overseen a marked improvement in form since being asked to take charge until the end of the season following Jose Mourinho’s dismissal in December.
Chelsea remain in the bottom half of the league table, but a run of seven games without defeat under the Dutchman — culminating in last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Arsenal — has transformed the mood at the club.
Hiddink believes a cup run can only help his team’s efforts to improve their standing in the league.
“Every win helps, even in training, where we play to win,” he said. “The attitude now is there to give everything in every duel, as a team and as individuals. It will help, of course.
“I don’t want to say that (the cup is more important) because we’d be neglecting the beauty of the Premier League, but the next step is about Sunday.
“I don’t want to disrespect the Premier League, but that’s after Sunday.”
Enjoy the experience
Eden Hazard is in line to make his first appearance for four weeks after recovering from a groin problem, but Loic Remy is expected to be missing from the squad with a groin injury.
Alexandre Pato has not yet completed his loan move from Corinthians, while Radamel Falcao remains injured, leaving Diego Costa as Chelsea’s only available senior striker.
Chelsea were humiliated in the FA Cup last season by third-tier Bradford City, who turned on the style to win 4-2 at Stamford Bridge.
MK Dons, then in the same division as Bradford, also produced a cup shock against a giant of the Premier League, beating Manchester United 4-0 in the League Cup.
Manager Karl Robinson is hopeful his players can replicate that performance and keep believing that Chelsea can be beaten.
“On the day the players have to perform,” he said. “All the prep and hard work that goes into every game doesn’t mean anything if we go and freeze.
“I know they won’t. I know we’ll try to do our best. The last words I’ll say will be, ‘Go and enjoy the experience.’
“It’s going to be a wonderful experience, playing against some of the best players in the world.”
The game is worth around £500,000 ($711,000, 657,000 euros) to the Championship strugglers, who expect a sell-out crowd of more than 30,000. Almost £150,000 of that will come from television fees.
Striker Nicky Maynard is a doubt because of a hamstring injury, but defender Kyle McFadzean is back from a ban and on-loan forward Rob Hall is in contention after being ineligible for last weekend’s 3-1 defeat at parent club Bolton Wanderers.
Former England defender Matthew Upson is out injured, however, along with Ben Reeves and Carl Baker.