WILL AVRAM HAVE THE LAST LAUGH?
It’s official. Avram Grant is now as good as José Mourinho.This has come as something of a surprise to many of us, who expected Avram to be the very definition of the stopgap manager; the interim measure before a bright young star appeared on the horizon in a sharp suit. Deschamps, Klinsmann, even the expectorating Rijkaard… as fans accustomed to the brightest and most abrasive star in the management firmament, we couldn’t see beyond Avram as the next “dead man walking”. Or perhaps that should be undead, to steal a soubriquet from the merciless tabloids.
Well may we hang our heads in shame, as Avram’s Chelsea – could this be the first time the Blues have been referred to as such and, if so, does this merit some sort of financial recognition from our munificent owner? – have dispatched Reading to equal Mourinho’s run of nine consecutive wins and further extend the longest home unbeaten run in top-level English football. It will surprise nobody that the free-flowing football of legend has been, if not conspicuously absent, more of an occasional visitor than a fixture. Last night, however, it was regularly in evidence, with both Cole (the winger, not the maritally-challenged fullback) and Shaun Wright-Phillips showing flicks and flashes that lit up a grey Wednesday evening. When Michael Ballack’s towering, precisely-placed header eluded Marcus Hannemahn’s despairing dive, it looked as though the breakthrough would spark a rout. It didn’t, and 1-0 to Chelsea has been as familiar a scoreline under Grant as it has under his predecessor, but this was a worthy 1-0 against a good side and an excellent keeper.
The mythology of the Premier League as a competition which requires a certain familiarity and insider knowledge seems to have passed Grant by. The same is true of his counterpart over at Anfield, but with rather different results. While Grant seems to revel in the anonymity that his unprepossessing demeanour lends him, Rafa is growing increasingly shrill in the face of mediocre results, supporter disquiet and the opprobrium of the owners. I entirely agree with him when he says that the Champions League is probably the priority of Chelsea Football Club over the next couple of years, but two League championships in 3 years allows you the luxury of aiming your sights elsewhere. It must be particularly galling to recognise that your rivals (assuming we are still seriously considering Liverpool as pretenders to the last of the “Big Four” places) may have their minds elsewhere, but are still trouncing your League results. 7th at the end of January and well and truly bogged down in the chase for the UEFA Cup… the Kop must be delighted.
A quick nod – in fact, a little more than that, because his flickers of form have begun to string themselves to form something of a strobe – to the excellent Shaun Wright-Phillips. I can admit it: I’ve had doubts. Many, many doubts. From top billing to the wilderness… well, it’s a decline that would test anyone’s confidence, but the boy has effervesced and pushed and worked his little socks off, and damn me if he didn’t turn in another excellent showing last night. He may still hit crosses down the Fulham Road, and he may still be concentrating on his feet when he should have his head up, but his flurry of influential performances in the last month or so should have catapulted him into the plans of Fabio Capello, who announces his first England squad today. All the best, young SWP… your work ethic’s been exemplary, and you deserve every reward that comes your way.