LONDON: Guus Hiddink says Chelsea’s slender hopes of challenging for a top-four finish in the Premier League hinge on them enjoying a perfect record at Stamford Bridge.
After dropping two points at home already this week in a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion, Hiddink’s side have little margin for error ahead of Everton’s visit to west London on Saturday.
But Hiddink, the club’s interim manager, maintains that as long as there is a mathematical chance of claiming a place in next season’s Champions League that will be the club’s target.
And the belief Hiddink might oversee a dramatic transformation in Chelsea’s fortunes during the second half of the season has been gathering pace during his first three weeks in charge.
Results have improved – Chelsea are undefeated in six games since Jose Mourinho was sacked before Christmas, five of those with Hiddink at the helm – and, more importantly, so too have performances.
But against West Brom the flaws that surfaced during their dismal first half of the season resurfaced, with Hiddink’s side guilty of conceding two sloppy goals and Diego Costa once again apparently intent on staging a running battle with his opponents.
If they are to recover and beat Roberto Martinez’s Everton, Chelsea must demonstrate more steel to match the enterprise they occasionally showed going forward against West Brom, even with Eden Hazard still sidelined with a groin injury.
For Blues goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois the goals scored by Albion typified the difference between this season and last, when Chelsea dominated games for long periods on their way towards their title success.
“The goals were a bit unlucky. The first, Pedro wanted to come inside and play the ball but it took a touch to [Craig] Gardner and he hit a fantastic shot,” Courtois told Chelsea’s website.
“The second came after a free-kick, we tried to head it clear, the ball touched our player and the shot went in the corner again.
“They were unlucky and that’s the position we are in at the moment. They were goals maybe last year we didn’t concede because we were up top, and now they are the kind of goals you concede because you are down there.
“We have to keep on fighting, we have Everton now which will be a difficult game as well but we have to fight for every game and every point.”
Hazard is expected to again miss out with Hiddink anxious not to risk further injury by rushing the Belgium international back too soon.
Everton have lost just one league game away from home all season and have let in only nine goals on their travels.
In addition, they have drawn more Premier League matches so far – 10 in total – than anyone else so perhaps Everton’s 0-0 draw at Manchester City this week should not have come as a surprise.
Martinez’s men are hard to beat, but they do not win enough either; the consensus among the club’s support is that a team containing the talents of John Stones, Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku should be higher than 11th in the table.
Having conceded seven times in home defeats against Leicester and Stoke at Christmas, their defence is looking more solid following the return of Phil Jagielka after two months out with a knee injury.
The captain has been key to successive clean sheets against Dagenham and Redbridge in the FA Cup, and at Eastlands in the league.
“I’m still trying to find a bit of match sharpness,” Jagielka said.
“This was only my second 90 minutes in about three months. The games are going to come thick and fast now, we’ve got Chelsea away on Saturday, so it’ll be an interesting couple of weeks or so.”