LONDON — For reasons best known to the Dutch, Guus Hiddink is knows as “Lucky Guus” in Holland.
There was nothing lucky about the coaching masterpiece he delivered as Chelsea stunned Liverpool by winning 3-1 at Anfield in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
In boxing terms, Liverpool is not quite knocked out, but the count is up to seven.
It should be no surprise Hiddink produced a plan that nullified the usually influential Steven Gerrard.
Throughout a successful career Hiddink has outwitted club and national coaches and Rafa Benitez, who himself has made a habit of coming out on top tactically, was second best on this occasion.
Michael Essien, whose brilliant form after a long-term injury underlines just how much Chelsea missed the Ghanian, man-marked Gerrard, leaving Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack to slowly dominate the midfield after Fernando Torres gave Liverpool the lead with a stunning strike.
“Essien was the key, it was his role to stop Gerrard,” said Hiddink.
“You have to analyze, and that’s not difficult with Liverpool, where their strengths are. You have to disarm Torres, Gerrard and the triangles with Dirk Kuyt.”
Chelsea has suffered at the hands of Liverpool in the Champions League, but this time it was not just better than the Reds, in Hiddink’s view his team was “perfect.”
In a game where the excitement level rarely dropped below nine out of 10, Chelsea made a Liverpool side which had scored four goals against Real Madrid and Manchester United look ordinary, though the two goals scored by Branislav Ivanovic from corners owed much to the home team’s frailty from set pieces.
Didier Drogba looked what we know he can be in between sulks, a striker of true class who leads his line with skill, strength and subtlety.
Chelsea versus Barcelona in the semifinals is the most inviting and enticing of matchups.
How this surprise but complete defeat will affect Liverpool remains to be seen. It clings to United’s shirttails in the Premier League and will have to produce one of the greatest comebacks in European football history to overcome Chelsea to reach the Champions League semifinals.
One Blues fan observed that Hiddink is already a Chelsea legend, though reports suggest Chelsea has lined up AC Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti for next season.
The more successful Hiddink is the more pressure there will be for Roman Abramovich to make him change his mind about returning to coach Russia full time.
Billionaires usually get what they want, one way or the other, and even in the credit crunch Abramovich is still able to offer Hiddink a blank check.
AFTER A night of English complacency and Portuguese creativity at Old Trafford, Manchester United must make history by becoming the first English side to beat FC Porto at its intimidating Estadio do Dragao in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals next week if it is to reach the last four.
Tuesday’s 2-2 draw leaves the European Champions facing the exit sign, and while Sir Alex Ferguson has made few mistakes in becoming English football’s most successful manager, he will reflect on his decision to play Aston Villa two days before the visit of FC Porto if United loses in Portugal on Wednesday.
United could have played Villa last Saturday, but Ferguson opted to play on Sunday to give his international players an extra day to recover after two games for their country in five days.
The Reds beat Villa 3-2 thanks to Federico Macheda’s spectacular stoppage time winner, the teenager’s first goal for United.
But the victory and subsequent hype about the previously unknown Italian covered up the reality that United was not convincing or particularly impressive against Villa. It was heavy-legged, careless and poor at the back despite the win.
Against FC Porto it was more of the same, the team looking jaded and out of sorts. There was another late goal at Old Trafford, but this time United conceded a potentially decisive equalizer to Mariano Gonzalez.
An impressive FC Porto, which was anything but defensive, deserved its draw. It played some excellent football, helped by United taking its foot off the pedal with the finishing line in sight.
Defeats by Liverpool and Fulham had sounded alarm bells for Ferguson, who said when United was looking unbeatable: “You can get a kick in the teeth. You must put your mind towards thinking ‘expect the worst and hope for the best.’ “
When asked if United had eased off, Nemanja Vidic admitted: “To be honest, maybe.”
Ferguson is no doubt delighted to be playing Sunderland on Saturday, which seems a nailed-on three points even for the stumbling Premier League champions.
Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.
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