I will not rest until we reach final, says Grant
Tuesday 19 February 2008
The flight carrying the Chelsea squad to Athens for tonight's Champions League tie away to Olympiakos was forced to circle Eleftherios Venizelos airport for two hours because of heavy snow, which led to a shutdown of the area. In some ways, too, Chelsea's season is in a bit of a holding pattern waiting to see where it is going to land.
They are the only club remaining in contention for honours on four fronts, which is some achievement, and, although the Premier League may just be beyond them, the other three trophies are tangible. What makes it all the more intriguing is that, for the first time this season, all the big guns are back and fit – although, unfortunately, Andrei Shevchenko no longer qualifies in that category. Still recovering from his damaged back, he had to make do with a reserve outing at Brentford last night.
This is, therefore, the first true test of Avram Grant's managerial acumen. "What is more of a headache?" the Chelsea manager said when asked about his selection – and ego – issues yesterday, having flown in on Sunday. "This one or the one I have had for two or three months? This is less sore. You are a big club and having to fight in all competitions, so you have to deal with the situation. I know who will play and how we will play and who will be on the bench. There is not the first team. Football now is about a squad and the players who have come back make it better for us."
Nevertheless, only 11 can start and the choices are clear. "Everyone asks if Anelka can play with Drogba or Ballack with Lampard and I say that every good player can play together as long as they are prepared to work for the team," Grant said. "You can see the strength of the team if you look at the bench. I have no problem leaving any star name out."
Nicolas Anelka, the £15m arrival from Bolton Wanderers, is the most likely to be omitted, although if Didier Drogba feels a twinge in his knee it may save Grant a choice. Either way, his options are now formidable as Chelsea, chasing a place in the last eight, and still in search of their first European Cup, return to the stadium where they won the European Cup-Winners' Cup back in 1971.
The Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus may have been rebuilt since then, but so too have Chelsea and the ambitions are clear, especially as their Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, mindful that this year's final is in Moscow, has set winning this trophy as Grant's main priority.
"Chelsea are a big club already, but if you want to be a really big club, and bigger than we are now, we need to be in the final of the Champions League and then do more and more," Grant acknowledged. "You cannot say we are bigger if we don't get to the final of the Champions League. So this is our target. Our target was to do it within two years, but we want to do it this year. I personally will not rest until we get to the final."
Chelsea, who yesterday announced that the defender Paulo Ferreira has signed a new five-year contract, could have been handed a far trickier tie, although they will do well not to underestimate the Greek champions. In finishing ahead of Werder Bremen and Lazio, and beating Real Madrid, to reach the knockout stages for the first time in nine years they revealed just how dangerous they can be, especially in what is set to be a hostile – if not exactly hot – atmosphere.
"Not one Chelsea player or coach thinks it will be an easy game," Grant said, although the midfielder Michael Essien admitted that even though they are "one of the biggest teams in Greece the only player I know well is LuaLua".
The former Portsmouth striker, who has spoken of his admiration for Grant after their season together on the South Coast, is unlikely to be included tonight. Instead Essien will be made aware of the danger of the two veteran Serbs: the midfielder Predrag Djordevic, who has been with the club for 10 years and the massively experienced Darko Kovacevic.
No further snow is forecast today for Chelsea and their 1,700 travelling supporters, although Grant and his team will have to make sure they do not get caught in a storm of another kind.
Tonight's probable teams
Referee: K Plautz (Austria), TV: 19.45, ITV 4
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