Chelsea fly to Moscow today for the biggest game in the club's history with the future of Avram Grant still shrouded in uncertainty. The manager appears to have failed to receive the assurances he has sought from the club's hierarchy – namely the owner Roman Abramovich – with Roberto Mancini, the coach of Internazionale, believing he is the most likely candidate to replace Grant if he is moved on after Wednesday's European Cup final.
Chelsea sources were last night playing down Mancini's prospects but, according to those close to the 43-year-old Italian, he considers himself to be in contention to succeed Grant should the Israeli be sacked.
The Inter club owner and president, Massimo Moratti, last night insisted that Mancini would stay with the Nerazzurri but, tellingly, the former international striker refused to talk about his future after leading the club to their third successive league title with a 2-0 victory over Parma.
The two men have endured a rocky relationship and Mancini's silence would appear to indicate that he is seeking employment elsewhere. Informal soundings are believed to have taken place about his availability at the beginning of last month, in the week that Chelsea played Fenerbahce in the Champions League. One of Mancini's agents then travelled to England to try to clarify Chelsea's intentions.
That would suggest that the Italian is pushing for the move but, certainly, Grant, despite guiding Chelsea to their ever European Cup final and running Manchester United close in the Premier League, has not been told that he will stay. And while Grant maintained last week that he did not need any reassurances beyond his four-year contract, which he was awarded last September when he succeeded Jose Mourinho, he talked to his agent Pini Zahavi on Friday evening about his future.
Abramovich was in London twice last week. He attended the final Premier League match at home to Bolton Wanderers eight days ago and spoke with Grant afterwards, but only about the game, and then returned later in the week without, again, giving the manager any guarantees. Relations between the two remain good and if he is replaced as manager the 52-year-old Israeli is likely to be given the option of returning to the post of Chelsea's director of football – the job he was originally appointed to do when he arrived last June.
While, according to sources, Abramovich appears to have decided as early as the FA Cup exit to Barnsley in March that Grant might not be the right "manager" to take Chelsea forward there has always remained the chance that he could change his mind, especially as he likes the relaxed relationship he has with Mourinho's successor. Sources at the club say that Grant could save his job if he won either the Premier League title or the European Cup or came close with a "glorious failure".
Under those criteria a victory – or an exciting defeat – at the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday may be enough to save Grant, but the mood around those close to Abramovich appears to be that the Russian billionaire has made up his mind.
Whether he chooses Mancini as Grant's successor remains to be seen. Certainly, some influential figures appear to be pushing his case just as others last season, and earlier this year, were pressing the claims of Frank Rijkaard, who has now left Barcelona and is still under consideration. Another candidate could be Luciano Spaletti who has impressed as coach of Roma. As much as Sven Goran Eriksson, the manchester City and former England manager, would like the job he is not in the running. Matters are complicated further because there are powerful, yet conflicting, factions around Chelsea.
Mancini would be an interesting choice. Like Rijkaard he fits the mould of a younger, charismatic coach who has achieved much as a player on the international stage which is someone Abramovich has coveted ever since his conflicts with Mourinho surfaced at the end of 2006. Mourinho said yesterday that he expects to be back in work within a month and has held talks with Inter.
Mancini has also supervised an Inter team who have, again, failed to succeed in the European Cup. They were knocked out in March by Liverpool, a result that had such reverberations at the club that they almost blew an 11-point lead at the top of Serie A, especially after Mancini announced his intention to quit at the end of the season, although he later said he had changed his mind. However they held on to pip Roma by three points.
With Jose Bosingwa, a £16m signing from Porto, already recruited, Chelsea's squad is to undergo an expensive re-modelling this summer as Abramovich insists on more attacking, creative football. Didier Drogba is expected to play his last game for the club on Wednesday while several other players could leave including Frank Lampard, although the likelihood of him departing has receded in recent weeks.
One of those whose future is not in doubt is Chelsea's player of the year, Joe Cole, and the England midfielder has hailed the club's "tremendous achievement" in reaching the European Cup final. "The Champions League wasn't even on the radar for Chelsea fans when I was younger," he said. "But now the club has developed, grown and is going in the right direction."