The tall guy and fall guy set dilemma for Grant
Thursday 06 March 2008
It was not until a full hour after the final whistle that Avram Grant emerged for his press conference. Given the Chelsea manager's style of also naming his team late – it was not until 1pm yesterday that it was confirmed to the players that Michael Ballack was in, Michael Essien out – it was in keeping.
Given also Roman Abramovich's presence at Stamford Bridge last night it could have been surmised that Grant had been summoned for an audience with the Chelsea owner. Maybe to explain just how is he going to keep all those egos happy? However the more mundane, but honest, answer was that he had lost patience having been kept waiting by the long-windedness of the Olympiakos coach.
Patience will be a key from now on in for Chelsea. Patience to wait to see if selected, patience if left on the bench. "Nico was our best player against West Ham," Grant said. And then he dropped Nicolas Anelka. Michael Essien had played in every Champions League game so far this season and, yes, he too was bombed.
"It's the first press conference in which the first or second question has not been about who is or who is not playing," Grant said when finally asked about Essien's omission having already declared himself happy with Chelsea's "clever football" against the Greek champions. "I miss it." Like a hole in the head, perhaps. But he is going to have to get used to such inquisitions.
There may be some public pronouncements too from certain players if they are not selected. It may be that the inclusion of Ballack and Didier Drogba as well as John Terry and Frank Lampard had something to do with the fact that the quartet are not just among the strongest players in the squad but also the strongest – and most vocal – characters. It was the quiet guys – Essien, Anelka and Alex – who sat on the bench.
And so Essien was the fall guy, Ballack the tall guy – who rose to head Chelsea into the lead. In fairness he fully deserved, on form, his selection and although Lampard, too, scored and each set up the other's goal it was hard to ascertain whether it had any bearing on the debate as to whether they can play together. Such was the paucity of the opposition.
Grant claimed that Chelsea now train in two formations – presumably the 4-3-3 he inherited and a 4-4-2 to accommodate both Drogba and Anelka. There's also been a 4-1-3-2. It is all becoming a bit bewildering, not least for the players. It also smacks, to be honest, of a coach who does not quite know what to do with the riches at his disposal rather than one with an innate ability to innovate.
Big matches need big game players and Chelsea have those in abundance which is going to be Grant's conundrum from now until the end of the season. Managing that may determine whether he stays as manager and, in truth, it is made all the harder because of his own limited pedigree. It is easier to drop those with reputations if, like Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson, you have a big rep yourself.
The treatment of Ballack has been curious. Now, more than at any other time during his Chelsea career, his right to a place in the team is indisputable. Yet Grant's tactics are creating frustration. Disgruntled stars do not stay stars for too long if they sit among the substitutes or are kept waiting.
It did not really matter against opponents as star-struck as Olympiakos, but Grant clearly needs to keep an eye on the bench as well as the pitch. If he does not solve that he will be nothing more than a caretaker.
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