Chelsea prosper as Grant finds his voice

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The Independent Online

The Ruhr Valley is where Jose Mourinho ended his education to become Chelsea manager – winning the European Cup in this stadium four years ago with Porto to secure his contract at Stamford Bridge – but it is also where his successor Avram Grant started.

The Israeli, although 52, is still a novice at this level, but he spoke wistfully yesterday of coming to Duisberg, a few miles from Gelsenkirchen, to spend five weeks on a coaching course in 1977. It was the first time he had worked abroad. "And now I'm back as the Chelsea manager," he said.

The incredulity at his elevation has been shared. Yet with seven straight victories, rattling in 19 goals, Grant, given the time to prosper by his friend, the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, is seizing the opportunity. Like his team, he is gaining in confidence and banishing doubts.

"I'd like to do something here with a good style at a big club," Grant said ahead of tonight's Champions League tie against Schalke. "We want to play a good attacking style. This is what I've done all my life, creating things. I think we're moving in the right direction at the moment."

Style. Attacking play. It is the mantra of Abramovich, and Grant misses no chance to use the buzz-words. He is, also, tentatively, gaining the courage to criticise Mourinho's regime.

"In every aspect of the game, we've improved," Grant said of his stewardship so far. "Our defensive game is better, but especially in attack. We've brought in a new style and become well organised in a short period of time. If you want to build a team to attack, it is more difficult than to be a defensive team."

Memories of this part of Germany don't just belong to Mourinho and Grant. For Frank Lampard, Chelsea captain in the absence of the injured John Terry, there is also the memory of last year's World Cup – he was one of the penalty-takers who missed against Portugal in that harrowing shoot-out in this stadium.

Of course Grant is adamant that there is no lasting damage to Lampard – and confident enough to predict that he would score if presented with another penalty tonight. There was also praise for his player in the claim that had he started against Russia in the last European Championship qualifier England would have won. "I'm sure that if Frank and JT had played in the last game against Russia the result would have been very different," he said.

Grant said similar things last week – and it would be arresting had he said the opposite. But the fact that he is prepared to take a swipe at England manager Steve McClaren shows he is finding his own voice in this managerial game.

Confidence is also coursing through the players. Florent Malouda, one of those unsettled most by Mourinho's departure, said that the proof was evident "on the pitch". "I think everything is better," the French winger said. "We had a little bit of trouble inside the club – we changed manager – but the fact is we had to move on. We needed a lot of good results to get the confidence back. We don't like to choose between titles, but that is a fact that, to win the Champions League title is a very important thing in your career. I came to Chelsea for that."

Confidence is, however, low for their opponents, and Schalke 04 could be the result of tonight's encounter rather than the full name of the German club. They lost, last Friday, against the Bundesliga's bottom club Energie Cottbus and lie in seventh place, hampered by injuries.

Those are clearing up at Chelsea with Grant revealing that Michael Ballack took part in his first training session yesterday after his continued ankle problems.

Expected to lose out is Shaun Wright-Phillips, however, with a recall for Joe Cole. Wright-Phillips' reaction to that decision will be another test of Grant's abilities.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Belletti, Alex, Carvalho, Bridge; Essien, Makelele, Lampard; J Cole, Drogba, Malouda.

Schalke (4-4-2): Neuer; Rafinha, Krstajic, Bordon, Westerman; Rakitic, Grossmuller, Jones, Bajramovic; Lövenkrands, Larsen.

Referee: M Busacca (Italy).