LIVERPOOL // Guus Hiddink's reputation as an international alchemist has spanned three decades and as many continents. Yet, 21 years after he won the European Cup, the Dutchman retains his habit of conjuring golden performances in the most improbable of surroundings.
Now Chelsea, like Russia, Australia and South Korea, can point to a stellar result bearing the hallmark of Hiddink. Chelsea's 3-1 win at Anfield featured bold decision-making, surprise selections and a sudden switch in tactics to suit the personnel at his disposal and the situation. Typical Hiddink, in short. Each of the key factors should be attributed to him, from the rejuvenation of the towering Didier Drogba to the neutralising of Steven Gerrard, energetically shackled by Michael Essien. With Jose Bosingwa sidelined, Hiddink could perm from five alternatives who had played at right-back in the last 12 months. The choice of Branislav Ivanovic was justified by the Serb's headed brace.
Much as Rafa Benitez had forensically dissected the Manchester United defence last month, Hiddink identified a flaw in perhaps the most miserly rearguard in the Champions League. Zonal marking - or a lack of it - was exploited twice by Ivanovic. "A mistake," was Benitez's verdict. Two, really: Chelsea had a considerable height advantage, but the scorer was twice left unchecked. Benitez's tactical mastery of European games is well known, but he was outwitted. Hiddink's brand of imitation entailed an element of invention.
His was a radical change as Chelsea mirrored Liverpool, adopting a previously untried 4-2-3-1 system. It is the sort of tactic that be interpreted as a negative step, the intent being to cancel one another out. Instead, the visitors won enough individual duels with Drogba intimidating Martin Skrtel and Florent Malouda evading Alvaro Arbeloa, to render it a victory of power football. The manager's verdict suggested he subscribes to the school of thought that Liverpool are a two-man team. "You have to analyse and it's not so difficult to see where their weapons are, with Fernando Torres and Gerrard and also the triangle with Dirk Kuyt and the right-back [Arbeloa]," said Hiddink. His success in negating those strengths means that, despite Roman Abramovich's enduring admiration for Carlo Ancelotti, he must consider a politically damaging decision to prise the Dutchman from Moscow on a long-term contract.
In the short-term, caution was the watchword. "It was important we don't get complacent because it is by no means out of sight yet," said Frank Lampard, who flourished in an advanced role. "You know they are going to have a week to think up a plan to try to get the goals back." In their quest for a remarkable return, Liverpool are seeking succour from their past. Jose Reina said: "Of course the 4-1 at Old Trafford gives us hope; it shows us what we can do at any stadium. We won like that at Old Trafford, why not at Stamford Bridge?"
Arbeloa added: "Liverpool won a Champions League final by scoring three goals in 45 minutes, so why can't we get three in 90?" Such defiance would be expected. Yet Istanbul will forever be remembered precisely because such comebacks are so rare. firstname.lastname@example.org