James Lawton: On threshold of triumph, Roman has yet to lay true basis for empire

You do not put a team into a pipeline and wait for the refined product to appear
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The Independent Online


In the sun-burnished gold of early evening in this rampantly acquisitive city Roman Abramovich is asking a question that up to now has always been answered with a resounding yes.

Yes, money could buy him so many of his dreams.

It could buy him pieces of fabulous art and a personal empire created by the mineral wealth of the vast lands that stretch so far beyond the glitz of the new rich here that mocks the days of the old party elite in their clunky limos and their poorly tailored overcoats. It could even buy him love, the not so cynically inclined might say.

But now is maybe the last question. Can it buy him at the Luzhniki Stadium here tomorrow night that which he has craved so hard since he was spotted greeting a guest on the helipad of his superyacht Pelorus moored on the banks of the Tagus river in Lisbon four years ago? Can it deliver him the supreme reward for the heaviest-spending patron football has ever known? Can it yield him the Champions League title, the greatest bauble in club football?

As he is ferried around the city which some time ago elected him its most favoured son, as he is attended in the way that a resurrected tsar might envy, the urgency of the football question is brought into the sharpest focus by that scene back in Lisbon.

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It was on the eve of the European Championship in which Chelsea's twin centre-half tomorrow night, Ricardo Carvalho, proved the star defender and one of the first building blocks in coach Jose Mourinho's attempt to gratify his new boss. The scene conveyed extraordinary power and influence. A great row of Mercedes stretched down the dockside, each one with a uniformed driver at its side.

Every so often a Mercedes drove away one guest and another brought in someone new. Many of the guests were no doubt judged to be potential allies in the pursuit of football power and the impression of any onlooker had to be that this was indeed the dawn of a football empire to match anything seen before, anything dreamt of by Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Matt Busby in Manchester, or the Agnellis in Turin.

Yet here we are in Abramovich's transformed, glittering parish – well, at least that part of it which doesn't view the goings-on of better heeled compatriots as a fantasy imported from another planet – with still that age-old question about the true chemistry of a winning team. Why is it that four years after Abramovich's show of power and wealth in Lisbon, one backed up with the best part of a billion pound investment in Chelsea Football Club, the picture of the oligarch's plaything is still so far away from any old pro's idea of how you make success?

It is because so much of the money in the world so far has failed to buy Abramovich a little football common sense.

Four years on there are still more questions than answers coming out of his shining football palace of Stamford Bridge.

Will he ditch his friend and retainer Avram Grant, return him to the shadows, and try his luck with Frank Rijkaard, who has the commendation of beautiful style along with one Champions League title, or Roberto Mancini, the serial winner of the Italian league who apparently hungers for the chance to work with Abramovich's millions?

These are questions which wouldn't be breathed within a mile of the man who stands between Abramovich and his gnawing ambition here this week. Sir Alex Ferguson has always operated on the simplest of winning formulas. If you are to do the job you have to have the power, an undiminished ability to make your decisions and impose your will.

Jose Mourinho lost that underpinning when he couldn't take Chelsea beyond the borders of domestic achievement and couldn't produce football which was touched with at least a little fantasy.

Of course, everyone who knew football also knew that Mourinho, for all his foibles, his vanities and, too often, his untruths, had done a stupendous job at Stamford Bridge.

He had made a real team, a cohesive unit of growing strength. But, of course, the oligarch wanted something more and, impractically when you go back through the history of the game, he wanted it instantly.

Now the chances of Grant, who in his own dour way has already put in some remarkable achievements, surviving are caught up in the essential problem of Chelsea as they go into the most important game of their history.

It is that, like Mourinho, he is working on behalf of someone for whom a vital truth has yet to settle with the force of sweet reason. He is working for someone who doesn't understand that football is not like drilling for oil or gas. There are no clear parameters or technical requirements. There is a different kind of nerve and nuance and improvisation.

You do not put a football team into a pipeline, send it in crude, unformed, and wait for the refined and finished product at the other end.

So what does an Avram Grant do when he is handed the reins of Jose Mourinho?

He does the best he can. He uses what he has, makes the odd initiative in the signing of a Nicolas Anelka, and always in the knowledge that if he has a friend upstairs he is not a forgiving one, and certainly not one who would give him half a decade to impose his will, and his vision, as the board of Manchester United did for Ferguson.

This will not necessarily inhibit the chances of Chelsea, at the Luzhniki, however. They have enough big talent in Didier Drogba and winning character in the likes of Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard to beat any kind of odds and get a result anywhere in any circumstances.

In recent weeks, indeed, it has been Chelsea who have produced the bigger performances in all but their strange concession of an equaliser in the final Premier League game at home to Bolton Wanderers.

Yet the truest momentum has been elusive because the regime of Roman Abramovich has failed, again, to display that which is most basic to a winning football club.

It has managed to divide rather than unite. It has denied to Grant the confidence and authority that have always been the tools of the great managers. You may say that Grant does not naturally generate such qualities, but quiet men, if they have sufficient encouragement, often surprise the world and themselves.

Grant may do this here this week. He may strike the right note, the best understated gathering in of the strength of his players. And Roman Abramovich may be able to tell himself that his money and his ambition have, in the end, worked.

But for how long and on what basis? What you cannot stop believing is that when this story started, and when it was in such early days on the Lisbon dockside, Abramovich lacked a vital asset that would have outstripped the value of the great boats and the fleets of cars and the crush of all those who wanted to be near this figure of new, extraordinary wealth.

He lacked a wise, gnarled old football man to tell him that no, you couldn't really buy a winning football team.

You had to put the basics in place, and then you had to nurture them. Basics like trust and self-belief and the freedom of a good football man to do his work. But then first of all you had to pick the right man, and to do that you had to ask yourself what you truly wanted.

You needed to know that Jose Mourinho wasn't a maker of beautiful football. He was a hard-driving organiser, the man who won a Champions League title with Porto because he made them tough and scrappy and, ultimately, functional.

Now, ironically, Abramovich may win with an entirely different kind of football man and this city which puts such store on wealth and glamour will be able embrace and congratulate its famous son.

But in all the celebration he would be unwise to believe that he had found the best way to make a football empire. He would have to say that he had applied enough money to satisfy that basic whim of winning club football's greatest prize. If he was honest, he would also agree that the best way forward was to start all over again.

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