Boldness is not natural to Avram Grant but Chelsea will try and hit Liverpool hard tonight to secure a place in the Champions League final. The tactic, if it succeeds, may not be enough to save Grant his job – sources close to owner Roman Abramovich maintain that is unlikely to happen even if the Israeli wins trophies – but it certainly has improved his standing.
Grant, according to those close to him, is growing in confidence as his team charge towards the end of the season. "Saturday we wanted to show that we can play like champions," he said of the Premier League victory against Manchester United in which he showed a little emotion and was showered in a lot of praise. "We wanted to do that. But this is another game, a Champions League semi-final. We want to do it in this game."
Still Grant did not feel able – or willing – to grapple with the repeated inflammatory allegations of Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool manager, that in Didier Drogba Chelsea not only have a great striker but a cheat who dives his way to success. "I don't think he is at all," Grant said. "He's a good player. He's a powerful player, so the referee needs to look at what happens to him more. If you look at the video and see what [Jamie] Carragher did to him in the first game, the referee was very polite on him. Because he looks so powerful so defenders think there are other ways to stop him. I suggest you look at the video again."
Benitez has done so, of course, and has his own library of videos of Drogba – something that Jose Mourinho may have approved of when it comes to undermining opponents – and his so-called antics. "I think it's trying to distract things," Grant said, not unreasonably, although Drogba caused some distraction himself last weekend with his on-field spat with Chelsea's man of the moment, Michael Ballack.
Both are big players, big game players and Chelsea know they have those in abundance – which is part of the reason they remain so confident of reaching Moscow – although a final decision on whether Frank Lampard plays will be delayed until later today. Chelsea need to assess the midfielder's state of mind, following the death of his mother, Pat, whose funeral takes place at the end of this week, as much as his physical fitness. The decision whether or not to play really rests with Lampard, although such has been the form of Ballack and Michael Essien that his likely absence will not be fretted upon as much as previously.
Given Chelsea take a 1-1 draw into the second leg, they are favourites although the likelihood of this tie going all the way to penalties cannot be discounted. Goalkeeper Petr Cech also spoke yesterday, and talked of the "nice challenge of keeping a clean sheet". If he succeeds in that, then Chelsea will be in the final. "It's always difficult to start the game hoping to get a 0-0," he said. "No team in the world would do that. We'll play in a positive mood. We want to score a goal and make it even more difficult for them."
Cech has come through more trials than any other player this season, given his injuries which included having 50 stitches inserted in his face. "Some people say I look a bit funny with my head guard and the chin strap, but if I have to play with all my face covered, I'd be happy," the Czech international said. "I'm just happy to be on the pitch. I don't think about the injuries while I'm playing, even though I've had a few."
'Our staff were not racist to Evra' insists Buck
The Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, yesterday rejected Manchester United's claims that Patrice Evra was racially abused by ground staff, sparking the mass brawl after Saturday's Premier League match.
Buck, a lawyer, was categoric."My understanding is it is not a racist issue," he said.
The Football Association is investigating the incident. It is alleged that the French left-back was called a "fucking immigrant" by Sam Bethell, a member of the ground staff. Chelsea's position is that he was misheard, calling him a "fucking idiot" for running across the area that he was working on.
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