Speculation once more surrounds Chelsea’s managerial position as the Premier League champions prepare to visit Southampton on Saturday.
Ronald Koeman’s side recorded an impressive 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge back in October to pile further pressure on Jose Mourinho, who duly left Chelsea two months later.
Guus Hiddink has led Chelsea to a significant improvement in form since succeeding Mourinho, with a 2-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie their only loss since his appointment until the end of the season.
However, as Chelsea look to make it 11 successive league games without defeat at St Mary’s Stadium, talk over who will take over from Hiddink is once again grabbing the headlines, with reports suggesting Italy boss Antonio Conte is close to agreeing a move to west London.
John Obi Mikel has enjoyed a superb run of form under Hiddink and the Nigeria midfielder has praised the 69-year-old for changing what was a very different atmosphere within the squad when they last faced Southampton.
“The players feel more relaxed, people know what their jobs are and people are getting on with their jobs in a more relaxed way,” he said this week.
“He has given responsibility to people and expects them to thrive on it and make sure they do it in way where they feel comfortable. I think that is what the players are showing now.”
Chelsea are seven points behind sixth-placed Southampton going in to Saturday’s meeting, with Koeman’s team firmly back in the hunt for European qualification.
A run of just one win in 10 games in all competitions threatened to derail their campaign before Christmas, but the Saints have won five and drawn one of their last six league matches without conceding a goal.
Southampton have not kept a clean sheet against Chelsea in their last 11 top-flight meetings, but Koeman insists the champions will be wary of facing his in-form players.
“It was one of our big wins. We showed really good football in that second half,” he said of their victory in the reverse fixture.
“But you need to be at your best to beat them and we’re preparing for that on Saturday. They have good players and they are difficult to beat but they know it’s difficult to beat Southampton.”
Jay Rodriguez and Florin Gardos are back in training but Koeman says neither is ready to return, though Southampton boast an otherwise clean bill of health.
Chelsea captain John Terry (hamstring) is hoping to make his comeback after missing the PSG defeat and the FA Cup win over Manchester City.
Key Opta Stats:
– Chelsea have won four and lost just one of their seven Premier League trips to St Mary’s.
– There have been four goals netted inside the first 20 minutes in the last three Premier League meetings between Chelsea and Southampton.
– Ronald Koeman has the best win percentage of any Southampton manager in Premier League history (45.3 per cent).
– Hiddink lost just two of the nine Eredivisie games against the Koeman brothers (W3 D1 L1 vs Ronald, W2 D1 L1 vs Erwin).