Guus Hiddink made a solid enough start in his return to Stamford Bridge but will be left wondering what if as Oscar missed a late penalty to leave Chelsea with a 2-2 draw against Watford on Saturday night. Diego Costa scored twice for the Blues while Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney found the net for the Hornets.
The draw leaves Chelsea in the bottom mire of the table, but they are now two points clear of the drop zone. Watford, in contrast, are one of the stories of this Premier League season under Hiddink's former player, Quique Flores, and remain a point off a European place. But, while the result put an end to Watford's four-game win streak, Flores will certainly be happy with the point as the Hornets have a tough road ahead, with back-to-back games against Tottenham and Manchester City next up.
Hiddink had enjoyed his previous tenure at Stamford Bridge, replacing the sacked Luis Felipe Scolari in 2009 and guiding the team to an FA Cup win while losing just a single game. But the situation the experienced Dutch manager finds himself in now is far different. Chelsea are flirting with relegation and it is widely accepted that a player revolt pushed Jose Mourinho out of his perch at the champions. This is not the same team that won the league last season at a canter.
One plus for Hiddink was that the bile that accompanied the last Chelsea game -- with players, Costa prominent among them, derided as traitors by a vocally angry fan base -- was largely absent in the aftermath of Christmas. Instead, the atmosphere seemed one of resignation, even cautious hope, as Chelsea played in a far more fluent manner than seen of late without managing to suggest that they have solved all their issues.
Dominant in the early going, Chelsea still allowed Watford to get a foothold in the game and Ighalo almost made them pay in the 17th minute. A consistent threat up top, Ighalo exploited Branislav Ivanovic to race through alone on the net. Unfortunately, his shot was rushed and sliced well wide of Thibaut Courtois' frame.
Order was restored in the 31st minute when Chelsea finally made one of their many corners count. Willian, the best and most active player in blue on the day, sent in a flat corner that John Terry headed on to the six yard box. Costa took the ball on the swivel and fired in a powerful volley that gave Heurelho Gomes no chance.
But Chelsea's weaknesses have been in the back with Ivanovic and Terry both struggling, so it was not entirely a surprise to see Nemanja Matic bizarrely handle the ball in the 42nd minute to toss the Hornets a lifeline. Lost on a harmless ball in from Ben Watson, Matic needlessly elbowed the ball away, allowing Deeney to step to the spot. Deeney had converted his last three attempts from the spot and made no mistake here either, sending Courtois the wrong way to tie the match 1-1.
Ighalo then seized the lead for Watford after the break, benefitting from a big cut off Gary Cahill's boot. With the Chelsea defense unwilling to get tight on the tricky Ighalo, the Nigerian drifted left and took a speculative shot to Courtois' near post. The ball bounced off Cahill's boot, freezing the keeper, and suddenly it was in the back of the net.
Chelsea were not down and out, with Costa again the hero. In the 65th minute, Oscar fed Willian on the right flank and the Brazilian delivered a sumptuous ball through Craig Cathcart to set up a cheeky cut back to the far post. There was a whiff of offside about the play, but the linesman correctly gave the benefit of the doubt to the striker and the goal stood.
Hiddink threw on Eden Hazard for the final 15 minutes as Chelsea pressed for a winner. He made a near-immediate impact as Valon Behrami foolishly hacked the Belgian down to gift Chelsea a penalty. But Oscar, who looked short of confidence as he stepped up to take the spot-kick, failed to hold his nerve and sent the kick high into the Shed End.
Costa also put an unneeded punctuation on the afternoon, picking up a card with two minutes to play to earn himself a suspension. He will now miss a critical clash against a Manchester United side that is heavily rumored to hire Chelsea's former manager -- one Mr. Jose Mourinho. Should that come to pass as predicted, this upcoming Monday's fixture, rarely lacking for spice, could truly be a fiery one.