Chelsea's winter wobbles in the Premiership have led to unrest in the champions' dressing room over the contribution of Michael Ballack, the German midfielder signed last summer from Bayern Munich.
After last weekend's disappointing home draw with Fulham — Chelsea's second in a week to mid-table visitors and part of a run in which they conceded eight goals in four league games — the striker Didier Drogba and midfielder Claude Makelele had to be prevented from confronting their manager Jose Mourinho over Ballack's lack of effectiveness.
Last night it was reported that continued behind-the-scenes irritations at the club may lead to the manager quitting at the end of the season to take up a job with either Juventus or Internazionale in Italy. According to the reports, Guus Hiddink, the Russian national team coach, would step into his shoes at Stamford Bridge.
Senior players at Chelsea believe that Ballack is not pulling his weight, does not work hard enough defensively and has failed to mesh well with his new colleagues in attack. The issue has been raised in team meetings, only to be met by an angry, near word-for-word, repetition of Mourinho's defence of Ballack last month.
Mail on Sunday:
Dutch coach Guus Hiddink has cleared his way to join Chelsea this summer by announcing that he is ready to quit as boss of Russia.
The move by Hiddink, who has a close working relationship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, will increase the pressure on the Premiership champions' current manager, Jose Mourinho.
Hiddink, personally recruited by Abramovich to take over the Russian national team, is in regular contact with the Chelsea owner and would be his principal target if Mourinho leaves in the summer.
The Dutchman has an outstanding track record, most recently with South Korea and Australia in the past two World Cup campaigns and as a club manager with PSV Eindhoven.
Hiddink gave an insight into his relationship with Abramovich which is sure to unnerve Mourinho.
Talking about the problems of coaching Russia, who play England in two Euro 2008 qualifiers this autumn, Hiddink, said: "Abramovich has created a massive football academy here (in Russia). But he told me that Russia has not played a significant role in football for 10 years. He asked me if I could give him a helping hand.
"He was here the other day. He and I talked for a while about a number of things. He stays in the background and he is not pushy with things. I get on with him very well."
Last month, Abramovich said he and Mourinho ‘did not have friendly relations but they are warm enough'.