Avram Grant’s hangdog expression has become an all too familiar sight in recent weeks. The mixture of misery and self pity suffused with a subtle hint of exasperation is there for all to see. “This is the most disappointing day since I came to Chelsea,” he observed ruefully as he reflected on Barnsley’s ‘shock’ FA Cup victory over a star-studded Blues side that should have brushed away the ebullient but technically limited threat of the Tykes. “It was very, very disappointing, but I need to congratulate Barnsley. They showed a good spirit.”Ahh yes you can’t beat a touch of the old ‘good spirit’ eh Avram? The same ‘good spirit’ that Rottenham Dropspur showed when embarrassing your charges in the Carling Cup Final. The fact that Sp*rs bounced back to regular form, following up their Wembley victory with a 4-1 defeat away at mighty Birmingham City and a 1-0 home defeat to PSV in the UEFA Cup exemplifies the simple fact that Juande Ramos the Lilywhites coach and his players were so supremely motivated by the challenge of playing and beating Chelsea that their shortcomings as a football team were left in the dressing room on the afternoon of Sunday 24th February.
And so to the debacle at Oakwell. Chelsea arrived in Yorkshire on the back of two emphatic victories. The 4-0 drubbing of West Ham at Upton Park last Saturday and 3-0 midweek mauling of Olympiacos had surely exorcised the grim ghostly memories of that Wembley defeat. Don’t you believe it! I’ve written in the past about the frustrating curse of ‘glorious unpredictability’ that stalks Chelsea Football Club. Those were the days … the days when we were sh*t … beat Manchester United away one week and lose at home to Charlton Athletic the next. Mr Abramovich’s money and Mr Mourinho’s tenacity ensured that any talk of ‘glorious unpredicability’ was reserved for misty eyed reminiscing over a few beers in some far flung bar we’d pitched up in on the way to watching the Blues cruise past their next opponents. Chelsea showed ‘good spirit’ … they always showed ‘good spirit’.
Barnsley are not Barcelona. No-one watching Chelsea slip to defeat to a goal scored by journeyman Nigerian striker Kayode Odejayi, whose only claim to football fame prior to securing the Tykes a berth in the semi-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since 1912 was to be Ade Akinbiyi’s cousin, could have accused them of not trying or worse still complacency, but they were hustled and bustled off the ball, especially prior to the lemon-break, by a team whom on the strength of having beaten Liverpool at Anfield in the previous round, were supremely confident of achieving further glory.
Carpe Diem … ‘seize the day’. Er as you refer to it Mr Grant, ‘show good spirit’. “When Chelsea’s team sheet went up in the dressing room, the players looked at it and turned away,” said Simon Davey, the Barnsley manager. “There was no fear.” No fear, Mr Grant, No fear, Mr Cudicini, Mr Belletti, Mr Terry, Mr Carvalho, Mr Bridge, Mr Wright-Phillips, Mr Essien, Mr Ballack, Mr Cole, Mr Anelka, Mr Malouda. No fear, Mr Abramovich. No fear, Chelsea Football Club … and therein lies the root of the problem, opposing teams do not fear playing the Blues anymore. The veneer of invincibility applied during the first two seasons under Jose Mourinho has gradually been worn away. Smart coaches, and savvy players know how to play Chelsea, a Chelsea side that under Avram Grant seem to lack the desire, hunger and passion they did under Mourinho, despite whatever John Terry may have said following the CCF defeat to Sp*rs.
That Jose Mourinho chose this week to emerge from the shadows and remind everyone what a gifted and Machiavellian orator he is can be viewed as both ironic and unnerving. The Valencia Opera House was as suitable a venue as any for the Special One’s return to the grand theatre of football and it didn’t take long for his acerbic tongue to start cranking up the psychological war of words for which he is now fabled.
“Last week I was speaking with Mr Abramovich and Peter Kenyon … because I still keep in touch … and I was saying that I wish them always to succeed. But I hope to play them in the Champions League next season. And if I play them in the Champions League, I want to go there and kill them. That’s my nature.” That’s right Jose, it is your nature. Win at all costs, impossible is nothing! His opinion of Avram Grant, the man who replaced him as first-team coach at Stamford Bridge? “I feel nothing for him and everything for the club. I was at the club for 3½ years and we shared the same club for a couple of months. I have Chelsea in my heart for ever.”
Jose’s diatribes are the stuff of legend. If we compare and contrast his words with the diplomatically muted response of Avram Grant we can perhaps begin to understand the root cause of the current malaise at Stamford Bridge. “I have respect for what Jose did at the club in the past,” he said. “The club brought me here to go a different way and that’s what I have to concentrate on. I’m not a man of fighting. I’ll only fight for my team on the pitch, do everything for my club, and I have a lot of respect for all people, including Jose. I have no problem with him.” The trouble is Mr Grant, you cannot ‘fight for your team on the pitch’, the players have to fight for you and for themselves and I just don’t see it, no-one does.
In recent weeks Avram Grant’s team selections have led many to believe, myself included, that he has made the mistake of underestimating more lowly opposition. Chelsea might, as Grant has subsequently claimed, have put out a side that should have beaten Barnsley, but without Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Chelsea appear vulnerable in games requiring fortitude, courage and gung-ho guts.
Take a look at the starting line-ups for the Blues last five fixtures.
Chelsea 0 … Olympiacos 0 … Cech, Belletti, Carvalho, Alex, Ashley Cole, Essien, Makelele, Ballack, Malouda, Drogba, Joe Cole.
Chelsea 1 … Spurs 2 … Cech, Belletti, Carvalho, Terry, Bridge,Wright-Phillips, Essien, Lampard, Mikel, Anelka, Drogba.
Chelsea 4 … West Ham 0 … Cech, Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, Ashley Cole, Ballack, Makelele, Lampard, Kalou, Anelka, Joe Cole.
Chelsea 3 … Olympiacos 0 … Cudicini, Ferreira, Carvalho, Terry, Ashley Cole, Ballack, Makelele, Lampard, Kalou, Drogba, Joe Cole.
Chelsea 0 … Barnsley 1 … Cudicini, Belletti, Terry, Carvalho, Bridge, Essien, Ballack, Malouda, Wright-Phillips, Anelka, Joe Cole
The injury to Cech, forced Mr Grant’s hand when it comes to who plays under the bar, but Carlo is a more than capable deputy for Cech, and the goalkeeper does not dictate the way the team plays. The team that Mr Grant selected out in Greece lacked cohesion and a cutting edge, so in the next game with Sp*rs he reinstated Lampard and Terry and decided to experiment with the twin strike pairing of Drogba and Anelka … the former a logical choice the latter a costly gamble. There was a very solid look to the side that demolished West Ham and with the outfield exception of Drogba replacing Anelka it was the same team that outplayed Olympiacos.
‘It Looks like Avram’s finally found the right balance to the team,’ I’d mused to Ossie as we’d left the Bridge after the easy. 3-0 victory over the Greeks. ‘Yeah he’s just got to decide between Nic and the Drog up front and have done with it. The Drog wants away so maybe that’s settled for him by default anyway,’ replied Ossie.
So what did Mr Grant do for the match with Barnsley? He made six changes to the team that had romped to victory against the Greeks. It’s not rocket science really is it? Squad rotation is all very well if you can keep your players motivated, sadly I suspect Mr Grant cannot. It is not his fault. His track record prior to coming to Chelsea spoke for itself … silently! Mr Abramovich has done much for Chelsea Football Club. He transformed our fortunes on and off the pitch, he hired … and fired … the most gifted coach of this generation and his ambition is that Chelsea will ultimately become the number one club in the world … nay the stellar universe. I have no doubt that when he employed Avram Grant, it was not with the intent that he would manage the first team, but that as we all know is what has transpired and we have had to live with it … we still have to live with it.
SW6 will be an interesting place to be on Wednesday night when the Blues entertain rock bottom Derby. It is unthinkable that the Rams could be the side that end Chelsea’s proud unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge, if it did it would surely spell the end for Avram Grant’s reign as top boy on the coaching staff. I expect as kick off time nears, there will be chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ and ‘Jose Mourinho’ but not from me. What is the point? Whoever is in charge, whoever is playing, I want Chelsea to win. Support the Club, give the players the support and encouragement they need to do the job and get back to winning ways. Divisiveness achieves nothing.
Mr Abramovich and his cabal of advisors will be fretting over the future … Shall we go for Michael Laudrup or Frank Rijkaard? Maybe we should try and prise Arsene Wenger away from Arsenal, that would surprise them wouldn’t it? Oh to be a Russian speaking fly on the Stamford Bridge boardroom wall. Until then it looks like we are back to the good old bad old days of glorious unpredictability, my hope for what is left of this season is that the players take a leaf out of Liverpool’s book from recent seasons past and summon every ounce of ‘good spirit’ in them for the forthcoming matches in the Champions League if nothing else. For Mr Abramovich the lure of seeing his team contest the final in Moscow must be bewitching and I am convinced that he will do everything in his power to realise his dream. If this means relieving his friend Mr Grant of his coaching duties and shunting him ‘up stairs’ then so be it. Mind you this being Chelsea, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Blues remain unbeaten through the remainder of the season and ‘John goes up to lift the Champions League Cup’. Stranger things have happened. ‘Come on Chelsea!’
See you at the game!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ is out now. Copies are available to buy with a discount of up to 30% and free postage within the UK at http://www.overlandandsea.net/