Joe Cole Talks Eden Hazard, Guus Hiddink and Chelsea's Champions League Quest

Garry HayesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2016

SWINDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Joe Cole of Coventry City during the Sky Bet League One match between Swindon Town and Coventry City at The County Ground on October 24, 2015 in Swindon, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Harry Trump/Getty Images

It's supposed to be the journalists who ask questions in interviews, but Joe Cole gets in there first with some of his own.

"What do you think the Chelsea score will be tomorrow?" he asks, looking forward to the Blues' clash with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.

Cole's plying his trade for Coventry City these days, and they've just lost 3-0 to Southend United. Despite the doom and gloom of that result—one that dents the Sky Blues' League 1 promotion push—the midfielder still has time to consider the fortunes of his former club.

It's a measure of the man who, even after six years away, continues to hold favour along the King's Road. That empathy for Chelsea is a big part of it, but so too is the fact Cole has more than played his part in the Blues' recent history.

He was there for a first league title win in 50 years when Jose Mourinho led Chelsea to the Premier League crown in 2005. Earlier in that same season, it was Cole who was instrumental in Chelsea's 4-2 win over Barcelona in the Champions League.

Cole won a further two Premier League titles with Chelsea—sealing the 2006 success with a wonder goal against Manchester United—added to FA Cups and League Cups. In 2008, he was also named the Blues' Player of the Year after another historic campaign that saw the west Londoners reach their first Champions League final.

Back when Cole called Stamford Bridge home, Chelsea were the dominant team in English football. That status has been dented this season, but there are a few things that remain familiar to the 34-year-old, notably the result from that weekend fixture he was so eager to discuss.

Chelsea's English Midfielder Joe Cole (L) celebrates scoring with French Midfielder Florent Malouda (R) but the goal is disallowed during their Premier League match against Newcastle at Stamford Bridge, London, on November 22, 2008. AFP PHOTO / Glyn Kirk
GLYN KIRK/Getty Images

The Blues would beat Arsenal 1-0 just 24 hours after our chat, putting in the sort of performance Cole's Chelsea were renowned for.

The man who masterminded that victory was Guus Hiddink. He's a manager Cole knows well from spending the second half of 2008/09 under him during the Dutchman's first spell as interim manager.

We're in the tunnel at Southend's Roots Hall home and about 100 yards from where we stand is the spot where Cole's world came crashing down in 2009.

It was during an FA Cup replay against Southend when Cole picked up the knee injury that ended his season. Within a month of that game, Luis Felipe Scolari was sacked as Chelsea boss and Hiddink named as his replacement.

Despite never playing for Hiddink, Cole remembers the positive impact the Dutchman made as the Blues navigated their way through a tumultuous period.

"Guus really steadied the ship," he begins. "Phil [Scolari] had come in and tried to change things to his way—rightly so, because he was very successful—but it just didn't work. Guus came in and was more similar to Jose in his methods and it just suited the lads better.

"Guus is a good character and treated us well. He came in when we were at our lowest ebb, low on confidence and feeling tired. The intensity of training dropped a bit, which was different as some managers come in and want to flog you.

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

"Sometimes teams look a little bit jaded, so when training isn't as intense over a shorter time, it can freshen everyone up, which is what Guus did. It takes a very bright manager to do that."

Despite Scolari's failures, Cole still speaks highly of the Brazilian.

"Listen, you can't argue with his record," he continues. "He was a fantastic manager. I really liked him and we got along well, but his methods just didn't work for English football. Maybe if he was given time, it would've worked, who knows?

"Guus came in and he got everything back to how it was and the lads were able to kick on from there."

Change 2009 for 2016 and Cole's description of Chelsea isn't that much different. The criticism of the reigning champions has been that they've looked unfit and jaded this term; they've lacked confidence, with key players failing to deliver.

Like Scolari before him, Mourinho paid the price for those failures by losing his job. Now Hiddink has returned, he seems to be having the same impact as before. Chelsea do look fresher in the way Cole described from 2009; there's a spring in their step and the feeling around the club has changed.

Reflecting on Cole's experience from seven years ago gives us some insight as to how Hiddink is gradually turning the tide at Chelsea now.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24:  Guus Hiddink of Chelsea instructs his players during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at The Emirates Stadium on January 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

"Guus has come in at a more difficult time now, though," Cole adds. "The team's lost more games [than Chelsea had in 2008/09], so the confidence will be very low. The good signs now are that they haven't lost under him and they look better as a team in their performances.

"They've got to go for the Champions League this season. I don't see why they can't win it and at the moment, because of their points tally in the league, it looks like that's their best way of getting into the competition next season."

Hiddink is merely a temporary solution to all of this, however. Come the summer, the Dutchman will be departing Stamford Bridge once again, and Roman Abramovich will be left scouring the continent for his long-term replacement.

Whoever Chelsea employ, it'll be the club's 13th managerial appointment since 2003. It's a remarkable statistic that doesn't exactly promote stability at the club, although Cole sees it differently.

Cole himself played under six of those managers. Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant, Scolari, Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti were all in charge during his time at the club.

"It's obviously not affected the players that much because Chelsea have been one of the most successful English teams in the past 10 years or so," he says.

"What is the right thing to do? Look at Watford and what they have done recently. They've changed managers at an incredible rate. Some continuity you think would be good, but then sometimes it's not.

"It's par for the course these days for any football club. Every club is changing managers."

Toulouse's French forward Emmanuel Riviere (L) vies with Lille's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard during the French L1 football match Lille vs Toulouse on April 01 2012 at Lille metropole stadium in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUG
PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Getty Images

Cole's link with this Chelsea team goes beyond the current manager and his former team-mate John Terry.

After departing Stamford Bridge for Liverpool in 2010, he joined Lille on loan for the 2011/12 season, where he played alongside a certain Eden Hazard.

The Hazard from then and since is far removed from the player we've seen this season. The Belgian has epitomised Chelsea's struggles, failing to produce anything resembling the player who swept the board with personal awards last term.

For whatever reason, Hazard has been a major disappointment.

Cole's phone has been ringing throughout our chat. He's clearly a man that remains in demand, so we opt for an Aaron Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk out of Roots Hall so he can make his way to the team coach.

He slaloms through a group of stewards as though they're opposition defenders, and it's perhaps those jinking manoeuvres that remind him best of playing with Hazard.

Lille's English  midfielder Joe Cole (R) vies with Trabzonspor's Czech defenderr Ondrej Celustka during the UEFA Champions League Group B football match Lille vs. Trabzonspor AS on December 7, 2011 at the Lille metropole stadium in Villeneuve-d'Ascq. AFP
PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Getty Images

"I can't doubt that he won't be back to his best soon," Cole enthuses. "Every footballer experiences difficult times, but he's a great character and a top, top player.

"Eden was a fantastic guy. I know he's been injured recently and he'll be hurting because of that. No player likes spending time on the sidelines, so if Guus can get him fit and ready, feeling good about himself, he'll be back to form in no time."

With that, we're left in Cole's wake as he exits into the car park where some young Southend fans have been waiting for him. Autographs are demanded, selfies taken. There's no doubt he remains box office, even for opposition supporters.

The winds of change continue to sweep through football, but then speaking with Cole, we get the sense nothing has. Not for him or Chelsea.

 

Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @garryhayes