Guus Hiddink has admitted that Chelsea are likely to fall short in their bid to catch Premier League leaders Manchester United.
Hiddink's side are seven points behind United and have played a game more than the reigning champions. The Blues can close the gap to four points with a win at Portsmouth on Tuesday, but United will reestablish the advantage if they beat Newcastle at St James' Park on Wednesday.
United's ability to grind out narrow wins this season continued on Sunday as they won the League Cup final against Tottenham on penalties and Hiddink concedes it would be extremely surprising if they squandered such a big advantage. "I am not naive. They have a very good squad, but as long as there is a possibility, you never know. However, realistically, it will be difficult," Hiddink said.
"I like a team that does not give up. I liked the way the team reacted against Wigan after we conceded the goal, and that is just like I see the championship as well. We have to go as long as it is possible. We have the ambition to go and be at the top in the end of the May, so we have to stop them. They have always been classical clashes between two powerhouses, but let's make a few steps first."
Hiddink admits United's strength in depth has been the crucial factor in maintaining their bid to win all five trophies they are competing for this season. Ferguson was able to leave out Wayne Rooney, Edwin van der Sar, Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov against Tottenham, while Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic only came on as substitutes.
"Sir Alex Ferguson has the right blend," Hiddink said. "You have to be keen on the balance of the squad as well. You need three groups: the older group with experience, 28 to 32, some 34 the mid-group who are 23-27 and then the youngsters from 18-23. If the balance is right in those three groups, you can maintain your position as United have done for many years."
Hiddink has made an impressive start to his Stamford Bridge reign after winning his first three matches. However, the Russia coach believes it is the positive attitude of his players that has been the key factor in their recent revival.
"What I see is that the players are disciplined and committed to what we want to do," he said. "We would like to improve our control in games. Sometimes, and it is also to do with the quality of the opponents, we have struggled too much to get the game controlled and also we can improve in tactical aspects of the game. We have taken a maximum haul from the last few games, but there is always something we can improve on."
Chelsea will be heavy favourites to make it four wins under Hiddink by dispatching managerless Portsmouth, but the Dutchman won't underestimate the struggling Fratton Park club.
"Portsmouth can test anyone, and Chelsea especially," he said. "The clubs now who are fighting to avoid relegation, they are strong and they see every week that they have to gather the points, as Stoke did yesterday.
That is difficult because the teams at the bottom have this specific English commitment. In other leagues, if you are second and play the teams at the bottom, it is not easy but it is easier than here. That is why they will give us a big challenge."