MOSCOW (Reuters) – Former Chelsea defender Yuri Zhirkov believes Guus Hiddink has calmed the ‘psychological’ crisis at Stamford Bridge and the Londoners will be battling for the Premier League title again next season.
“I know Hiddink and I have no doubt that once he took over, the atmosphere at Chelsea became so much better and more relaxed than it had been before,” Russia international Zhirkov told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Under Hiddink, who replaced the sacked ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho as head coach on Dec. 19, the reigning champions remain unbeaten, winning four matches and drawing two in the Premier League.
Chelsea are currently 13th in the 20 team table with 28 points — 19 behind leaders Leicester City. The West Londoners were hovering just one point above the relegation zone when Mourinho left.
“The reason for the recent poor run is psychological,” said Zhirkov, who scored one goal in 48 appearances in all competitions for Chelsea.
“A year ago, Chelsea won the championship and this has had a bearing on the next season,” added the 32-year-old defender, who played under Hiddink when the Dutchman was Russia coach from 2006 to 2010.
“When you win the title, it is also difficult to defend it and to play at the highest level.”
The Dynamo Moscow defender, who on Tuesday signed a contract to join Zenit St. Petersburg when he becomes a free agent in July, felt Chelsea were getting stronger and stronger with every week that passed.
A place in next season’s Europa League was a possibility, said the Russian, who won the old UEFA Cup with CSKA Moscow in 2005.
“However, they possibly could have a break from Europe for one season. I think with Guus, Chelsea will ride out the crisis and next season will be back at the top of the table.”
Chelsea are still in Champions League contention, facing French champions Paris St Germain for a place in the last eight.
“It’s 50-50,” said Zhirkov of Chelsea’s chances. “Both teams have wonderful balanced squads. I will be hoping my former side will win.”
Zhirkov believes that current captain John Terry and vice-captain Branislav Ivanovic, who recently signed a one-year extension to the end of the 2016/17 season, are the club’s natural leaders.
“Both defenders were playing for the club when I was there. They are still key footballers and are able to show leadership qualities during crucial moments of a match.” he said.
“I am still in touch with Ivanovic as he knows Russian. I was on holiday recently in Dubai and I bumped into (former Chelsea midfielder) Deco. We had a really good chat and remembered old times,” Zhirkov recalled.
The Russian had good memories from his time in England and spoke warmly of Chelsea’s billionaire owner and compatriot Roman Abramovich.
“He is a really nice and simple person. Abramovich is able to get on well with everyone and he often comes to the training ground and even played table tennis with us,” he said.
“Of course it was difficult when I was not playing, but on the whole, I was happy with that period. I won a championship medal — that says it all.”
(Reporting By Dmitriy Rogovitskiy, editing by Alan Baldwin)