Grant struggles to feel special at highest level
Ferguson's strollers show Chelsea manager that European tests can be walk in the park
Against expectation, it is Chelsea rather than Manchester United who go into the home leg of their respective Champions' League quarter-finals this week a little uneasily. The night after United strolled to a comfortable 2-0 victory against a supposedly improved Roma, Chelsea seemed to be on the way to a similar outcome away to Fenerbahce in Istanbul, only to lose 2-1.
All in all, they should still progress to meet either Liverpool or Arsenal in the Premier League's very own semi-final – a third in four years played out at Anfield and Stamford Bridge? – but in the meantime more ammunition has been stored up, and in some cases used, against the man in black, Avram Grant.
Grant's essential problem, it has long been clear, is that he is not Jose Mourinho. Who is? A Mourinho team, we were assured by Fenerbahce's former Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman, would never have let such a lead slip. But the testimony of former players is normally about as objective as that of spurned lovers; Kezman did not explain how Mourinho, or anyone else, would have prevented Deivid's 30-yard screamer from finding the top corner of the net with 10 minutes to play.
From all we know of the Special One, he would have made exactly the same change as his successor did, sending on a defensive midfield player (John Obi Mikel) for his least effective, recently stricken attacking one (Frank Lampard) to achieve another dull draw. Colin Kazim-Richards' earlier equaliser, by the way, was the first goal Chelsea had conceded in more than 11 hours in the Champions' League, dating back to early October.
And so the pressure on Grant is cranked up again, just as it was after the FA Cup defeat at Barnsley, when his players missed countless chances, and during the critical home game against Arsenal, in which his substitutions changed prospective defeat into victory after the crowd had sung, "You don't know what you're doing". Stamford Bridge will be similarly unsympathetic if Chelsea, with the benefit of an away goal, do not put Fenerbahce away on Tuesday.
There is no recorded instance of United followers daring to utter the same chant at Sir Alex Ferguson, though only two seasons ago sections of the Old Trafford crowd sang "4-4-2" in protest at his tactics while losing at home to Blackburn with a 4-5-1 formation. Those of little faith might have dared to think similarly during a poor start in the Olympic Stadium last Tuesday, with Owen Hargreaves left out, Cristiano Ronaldo strangely and ineffectively playing through the middle, Wayne Rooney stranded out on the left and Ji-Sung Park on the right while Ryan Giggs sat in the dug-out.
"Woe betide me," the lugubrious Grant might have thought, had he used such a system in a Champions' League quarter-final. Then, with half-time not far off, Rooney moved inside to supply Paul Scholes and Ronaldo hung back long enough to power forward and score with a header Nat Lofthouse would have been proud of.
The pressure was off, and by adding a second goal, Rooney removed it altogether. Ferguson cannot afford to allow any complacency, insisting: "We'd be foolish to take the game lightly. In European football a goal changes the situation quickly. I wouldn't want to start the game against Roma and after 10 minutes have lost a goal. I think we have to get into a real mode of making sure we play our way and make sure it's a difficult night for them. One goal for us would finish it, I think."
Ferguson will make changes for his Premier League visit to Middlesbrough this afternoon. That may well mean a recall for Hargreaves, who, the manager says, has been a victim only of Michael Carrick's form, not any disciplinary action. As for Europe, all talk of destiny in this 50th year since Munich is now being avoided: "If we get through this one it could be Barcelona, which would be a very difficult game," Ferguson said. "We've got a chance, that's all you can say."
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