Watford-Chelsea Preview

The top tandem in the Premier League brought about the end of the Jose Mourinho era. Another quality attacking pair could make Guus Hiddink's touchline debut a miserable Boxing Day at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea will try to stymie Watford's in-form duo of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney.

Goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez on Dec. 14 condemned Chelsea (5-3-9) to a 2-1 defeat to front-running Leicester City, and the manner of the loss created the Rubicon that Mourinho crossed when he said he felt "betrayed" by his players. He was sacked three days later, and by Saturday, owner Roman Abramovich called upon Hiddink to once more rescue the Blues - not merely to secure a top-four finish, but this time to avoid relegation.

Hiddink watched from Abramovich's box along with former Chelsea great Didier Drogba as the Blues played free-flowing football last Saturday in easing past Sunderland 3-1 for just their second win in eight league matches. That style, though, only enraged the fans at Stamford Bridge, whose loyalty to Mourinho remains and was evident throughout the match via banners of support and jeers of players, and whose venom forced captain John Terry to acknowledge the team must win back the fans' support.

This is the second time Abramovich has called upon Hiddink, as the Dutchman guided Chelsea to the 2009 FA Cup after replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari. This time, though, Hiddink knows his players are the ones who are going to have to take the lead role in getting Chelsea righted this time.

"It was frightening for everyone in the club ... it's not easy to fix," Hiddink said Wednesday before his first match in charge.

Hiddink recounted telling the squad: "Look in the mirror for a long time and see what everyone from now on can contribute ... we cannot ignore what has happened in the recent past but I asked them to look in the mirror and see if you can be ultra-critical."

If there is one player Hiddink must reach to be successful, it's reigning PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard. The Belgium international should be fully healthy after missing last weekend's win due to a hip injury that forced him to leave the loss to Leicester. Hazard has just two assists after totaling 14 goals and nine assists in league play in 2014-15.

"He had a terrific season last year and it's normal to have a little setback," Hiddink told the league's official website. "He can be a key player when he is with the Belgium national team, but also here he can be a key player when he gets back in shape."

The other critical area will be in defence, as Ighalo and Deeney might consider Chelsea's backline a Boxing Day present to be eagerly torn into. Watford's recent form hardly shows a promoted side but instead one contending for a place in Europe - the Hornets (8-4-5) not only enter this match 10 points clear of the reigning champions, but in seventh - only one point off a Champions League spot.

It's heady times indeed for the Hornets, whose 28 points already match the club record for an entire season in the top flight set with their last-place finish in 2006-07. Watford are coming off a comprehensive 3-0 thrashing of Liverpool at Vicarage Road for their fourth straight victory as Ighalo had a brace on either side of halftime after Nathan Ake's goal in the third minute.

"We are fighting a lot, we are very competitive," Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores said. "I feel completely happy with the performance and the players. We are playing against amazing teams but we control the matches."

Ighalo, seeking to extend his goal-scoring streak to five matches, is fourth in the top flight with 12 goals, trailing the blistering Vardy-Mahrez tandem and Everton's Romelu Lukaku. While Deeney did not get an assist last weekend, he was instrumental in Ighalo's first goal and all four of his assists have come thanks to the Nigeria international's finishes.

Deeney has contributed five goals, and the pair have provided all but four of Watford's 21 goals. Their surge up the table has provided an air of confidence heading into the holiday crunch, with the Hornets looking to take points at every turn.

"We know Chelsea are a top team with quality players all over the pitch, and with a new manager coming in it might give them a fresh impetus to perform," defender Craig Cathcart told the Watford Weekend Preview Show. "So we will go in there expecting an extremely tough game, but we're confident we can pick up a result and hopefully that's what we'll do."

Though this is the first meeting between the teams in league play since 2006-07 - the last time Watford was in the Premier League - Chelsea have since bounced the Hornets from the FA Cup three times, including a 3-0 third-round victory in January as Willian, Loic Remy and Kurt Zouma all scored second-half goals.

Chelsea, 6-4-0 in their last 10 Boxing Day matches, have won the last six overall between the teams after Watford posted a 1-0 home victory in their first season in the top flight in the 1999-2000 season.

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