BIRMINGHAM, February 21 – Guus Hiddink enjoyed a winning debut as temporary Chelsea manager with a 1-0 Premier League victory away to Aston Villa here Saturday thanks to Nicolas Anelka's 21st goal of the season.
Victory, which saw the Blues leapfrog their opponents into third in the table, was Chelsea’s first in a decade at Villa Park.
Hiddink sparked demonstrations in Moscow by fans annoyed at his decision to combine his duties as manager of the Russian national side with that of replacement for Luiz Felipe Scolari at Stamford Bridge for the next 14 weeks.
And Villa manager Martin O’Neill also questioned his ability to combine both roles but the critics will have to wait for ammunition to throw in the direction of the much-travelled Dutchman.
Hiddink wants to rekindle owner Roman Abramovich’s love affair with Chelsea and he could not have made a more impressive start, with Chelsea’s first win at Villa Park since March 1999. There was a crackle of excitement back in the air at Chelsea as charged as their manager’s electric blue tie.
Victory here was essential for Chelsea if Hiddink wanted to retain any chance of overhauling leaders Manchester United and it was achieved under the watchful eye of Fabio Capello.
The England coach visits Villa Park more regularly than most Premier League grounds these days to monitor the progress of Villa’s England youngsters – but the Italian cannot have failed to have been impressed by Frank Lampard.
It was the energy and drive of the Chelsea and England midfielder that took him beyond Stylian Petrov and Curtis Davies in the blink of an eye, before his subtle pass created the cleanest incision in the spread-eagled Villa rearguard for Anelka to exploit.
he Frenchman, one of the few to really flourish under Scolari, made his goal look ridiculously easy as he clipped his 19th minute finish over the on-rushing Brad Friedel for his sixth goal in eight games against Villa for four different clubs.
Friedel’s reaction save repelled John Terry’s powerful header from Lampard’s corner and the England captain was also denied when another header was cleared off the line by Bulgarian Petrov.
But Villa should have been level just after the half hour when referee Mark Halsey was deceived by Emile Heskey’s theatrical fall.
Ashley Young’s free kick from the edge of the Chelsea box defeated the motionless Petr Cech before striking the crossbar and there was a sense of justice when Heskey headed the rebound wide from eight yards to the anguish of O’Neill.
Cech may well have contributed to the downfall of Scolari, following his consultations with Ambramovich, but he did as much as anyone to ensure Hiddink’s start was a winning.
Brazilian defender Alex was certainly grateful to see his agile save at the near post, after his mistake in dealing with Luke Young’s hopeful punt allowed Gabriel Agbonlahor a clean sight of the target and the Czech international twice denied Gareth Barry from inviting positions on the edge of the area.
Chelsea had to withstand four Villa attackers for the final 20 minutes as John Carew was introduced in favour of defender Curtis Davies.
But there was a determination about Chelsea that had been so absent under Scolari. Even Didier Drogba was spotted on more than one occasion tackling back inside his own half as Hiddink, arms folded and a study in serenity in the technical area, nodded his approval.
Only when the Ivory Coast striker shot over the bar from the corner of the six-yard box did the Dutch coach throw up his arms in a rare show of emotion.
Chelsea would have won more convincingly if Jose Boswinga had converted from close range after exchanging passes with Drogba but it was a miss Hiddink could afford.