First and foremost, welcome back Avram Grant. Champions League runner-up, chief ship-steadier, and a nice bloke to boot; or a traitor, tactically incompetent, puppet on a string depending on which side of the fence you sit. Grant is sure to get a mixed reception on his return to Stamford Bridge as he brings his Portsmouth side to SW6. For many of us, the last endearing image of Grant at the Bridge was on the final day of the league season when, following a 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers, the Israeli did a ‘lap of honour’ around the ground. Once he got to the West Stand, he was passed one of those huge flags with the Chelsea crest emblazoned on it. Struggling against it’s weight, he waved the flag to the best of his ability, but ultimately it was all in vain. And that’s Avram Grant’s Chelsea career in a nutshell.
Firmly departed from his strings, Grant has taken the helm at Portsmouth after a torrid couple of seasons under the combined managerial acumen of Tony Adams and Paul Hart. Pompey are currently rock bottom of the Premier League, though Grant has led them to a 2-0 win over Burnley and a 1-1 draw with Sunderland recently. Allegedly flirting with administration and five points away from safety, the South Coast side have only won one away game so far this season in the league, and have only netted four goals on their travels. Grant has a real job on his hands, but lest we forget that we need a win too.
Yet to taste victory in the month of December, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have gone four games without a win in all competitions. Our perfect home record in the league was smashed to pieces on Saturday with a ridiculous 3-3 draw with Everton, which automatically quadrupled our goals conceded at the Bridge. While Didier Drogba is scoring goals for fun at one end, defensive frailties exist at the other, a problem not helped by the expected absence of Michael Essien, who is definitely out of contention with a hamstring injury. José Bosingwa, Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge are also expected to miss out.
Pompey will be without ex-Spurs defender Younes Kaboul – not the cleverest man in football – who committed the schoolboy error of removing his shirt after he scored a last-minute equaliser on Saturday, thus collecting a second yellow card and a suspension for the trip to Chelsea. Giant midfielder and past scourge of the Blues, Papa Bouba Diop, is doubtful.
Both sides boast Ivorian strikers at the top of their attacks, but Drogba’s 15 goals put Aruna Dindane’s measly five to shame. Dindane has appeared hapless at times, and his occasional strike partner Frédéric Piquionne often looks the deadlier of the two.
Since Portsmouth’s return to the top-flight in 2003/04, our results against them have been near-impeccable, particularly at home. Fifteen scored and one conceded in London paints a stark image of the contrasting fortunes between the two sides. The last meeting was a 4-0 win for Chelsea on the opening day of last season, when Luis Felipe Scolari was still settling into the Blues’ dugout. A free-flowing, attacking performance brought goals for Joe Cole, Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard, and a long-range swerver from Deco as Harry Redknapp’s Pompey side were easily dispatched.
Memorable past-meetings include a goal for Wayne Bridge in 2003 followed by a ear-cupping celebration directed towards the travelling Pompey fans who had jeered him throughout for his connections with their arch-rivals Southampton, a brilliant volley from Geremi in the same game, and an audacious ‘chested’ goal from Hernan Crespo at Fratton Park in 2004.
Mark Clattenburg will referee the game, fresh from a 3-3 draw between Bolton and Manchester City at the weekend, where he dished out five yellows and one red, sending-off Craig Bellamy for an alleged dive, although replays have proved that the annoying Welshman was actually kicked. Anyone surprised? Clattenburg has already reffed a Chelsea game this season at the Bridge – the 3-0 win over Burnley back in August – but the North-east based whistle-blower has yet to take charge of a game involving Pompey this season.
With Chelsea’s slight dip in form providing some cause for mild concern – and frustrating some of the more spoilt and vocal fans in the Bridge – bottom of the table Pompey seem to provide the perfect remedy for our recent patchy spell. Manchester United will have played Wolves at home by the time we kick-off on Wednesday evening, and if we assume that they’ll win, we’ll have to follow suit. Maybe Avram Grant could help us out one more time.