The Nick Townsend column: Every underdog has its day... as Chelsea will prove
Blues cruise stealthily into contention on the rails so it is perverse that their manager's job is on the line
Sunday 04 May 2008
Chelsea are probably the only football club whose local residents regard a Bag for Life as one bearing Louis Vuitton logos and where it is not a rarity to discover Lamborghinis, let alone Porsches, in parking bays. As you wandered down Hollywood Road off the Kings Road, all posh nosh, smart bars and pricey art, after the Blues' progress to a Moscow final it was possible to reflect that the area mirrors the ostentatious quality of a team Avram Grant largely inherited from Jose Mourinho. For all the jibes hurled at the stolid Chelsea manager and his men, one senses they could be good enoughto undermine Sir Alex Ferguson's ambitions of a second Champions' League triumph, just as you always felt they would destroy Rafael Benitez's belief that there was another European final in his side.
While it was the two-goal executioner Didier Drogba and the authority of Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack which would have captivated the stargazers, Ferguson will be acutely aware that the Chelsea constellation contains other equally significant entities, notably in Michael Essien, Claude Makelele – the midfield enforcer who subdued Steven Gerrard – and that doughty central defensive pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry, who at least match the claims of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as the Premier League's finest central defensive partnership. And that is before you even begin to consider the vexed question of form and fitness.
You would back even a somewhat off-colour Manchester United against anyone in a European final, except Chelsea; a fully fit Chelsea, and one in which injuries suffered earlier in the season mean that there is now an invigorated look about them. Six United players have played more than 40 games this season; only one Chelsea player,Joe Cole, has. Drogba and Ballack, both of whose physical presence is so intimidating to opponents, have played respectively 26 and 22 games. What you could call nicely tuned top marques.
To borrow from horseracing parlance that will be familiar to Ferguson, that lover of the Turf, there is nothing quite so dangerous to a favourite as a rival that cruises stealthily into contention on the rails, and that is what Chelsea are doing on both domestic and European fronts. As Joe Cole reflected: "We have been an afterthought for everyone as far as giving out plaudits."
Ferguson may have something to say about the condition and prowess of his men, but let's imagine for a moment that Grant's team do prevail at the Luzhniki Stadium, having narrowly conceded the title. Only in the perverse world of football could a man assume control five weeks into the season and lead his team to a Premier League finale and a Champions' League final – beating Arsenal, Liverpool and United on the way – yet still find his job security the media's principal discussion point.
What a surreal sporting world we live in. Grant's command of his forces was lacking as Chelsea lost the Carling Cup final but he has since defied every prophecy that their season was about to implode. No wonder, in his own way, Grant was as emotional as his predecessor would have been on Wednesday night, slumping to his knees at the final whistle.
In a poignant letter to a Tel Aviv-based newspaper the next day, he attempted to place that triumph in some kind of context with his journey to Auschwitz. Included were these words from the man whose father survived the Holocaust: "The fact that today I am leading one of the most glamorous football clubs into a historic Champions' League confrontation 65 years after the carnage is thereal victory. Not my triumph. The victory of us all.
"For me to coach Chelsea is a dream, but it is also a very difficult adventure. The pressure being placed on me as the Chelsea coach cannot be described. The expectations are enormous. With a team like this I am not allowed to lose, not even one match."
Privately, it must gall the Israeli that Benitez, despite what many construe as the failure of his men to justify the club's considerable outlay by finishing hopelessly adrift in the Premier League and now this, appears to be the great survivor of the political fallout at Anfield. By all accounts, Tom Hicks's declaration to Liverpool's players, as he placed a consoling arm around Benitez, was: "Good job, boys. You were real unlucky."
Roman Abramovich's mere presence would, no doubt, have been appreciated by Grant. But he has not appeared at Stamford Bridge in weeks. So the vanquished Benitez gets another year at least. For the victorious Grant, who knows? Such are the vagaries of the management game. Sven Goran Eriksson can attest to that.
The prize, it must be stressed, was in Liverpool's gift for a significant amount of time on Wed-nesday. Victory at this rarefied level is about seizing themoment, and never more so than the moment when Fernando Torres, who along with Gerrard and Javier Mascherano are arguably the only Liverpool players who would challenge for a Chelsea starting shirt, produced parity.
You sensed Chelsea, like a pugilist rocked back on his heels, could be there for the taking. Never mind that Liverpool were not good enough. They have prevailed before in such circumstances. It was more a matter of Liverpool being bold enough. They weren't. Gerrard, by his own standards, failed to leave a substantial mark. The opportunity passed. The momentum was again with the hosts. The loss of Torres, who serves to flatter Liverpool's attacking verve, signalled the end. Benitez might have pitched on Peter Crouch to test Terry and Carvalho's resolve. Instead he produced a white flag or, to be precise, a Pennant, by the name of Jermaine. So we are left with a scenario which will gratify few, apart from Moscow hoteliers, restaurateurs and Abramovich. Not supporters of either side; not TV viewers of other nations.
Was this really what the creators of the Champions' League, football's great misnomer, believed would be a possible conclusion at its genesis: English club versus English club? Somehow it is doubtful. The more cynical will continue to remind us that both finalists are foreign-owned and dominated by foreign players. What cannot be understated, though, is that the Englishmen on display largely did their nation proud.
On Tuesday, as United again resisted Barcelona's forward threat, Ferdinand and Wes Brown excelled. So, too, the next night did Terry and Lampard, who was fated to convert that crucial penalty in the 3-2 victory. "I can't speak highly enough of Frank, as a player and a fella," said Joe Cole. "I've known him a long time and I know what he's about. For him to not only put the performance in after his loss [that of his mother] but also put the penalty away... we all love him."
Now, some of us would prefer that footballers and managers kept their private life, well, private. We would rather not know if a player's WAG has just given birth – please spare us those stomach-churning baby-rocking celebrations of new fathers. But one really did feel for the midfielder. In a week in which he attended his mother Pat's funeraland his manager travelled to Auschwitz on Holocaust Day to join in the March of the Living, it serves the national sport well to remind itself that, though it can imbue obsession and emotion within its followers, what it isn't is a matter of life and death. At times perhaps we all need to remind ourselves of that.
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