Avram Grant could manage a smile yesterday when, as usual, matters turned to the one man who really matters at Chelsea. Would his relationship with Roman Abramovich survive if the club's owner ever sacked him? "You have to do your job," Grant said. "If he ever sacks me, I think he'll still be my friend."
Take that as a "yes", although the man himself might not be under as much pressure as some people think. Chelsea play Tottenham at White Hart Lane tonight in a game that could thrust Grant's team right back into the heart of the title race. And those around the Israeli say that he is already planning for next season, discussing with friends the players he might sign in the summer. In short, he is not behaving like a manager who believes that his days in the job are numbered.
The strength of Grant's relationship with Abramovich is not in doubt. What is puzzling about Grant is what to make of the man himself. He has edged his team back into contention for the championship – win tonight and they will, at the very least, be level on points with Arsenal and within three of Manchester United. Yet he has presided over the defeats to Barnsley in the FA Cup and Tottenham in the Carling Cup final. It looked bad for Grant then, although no other "big four" club fared any better in either competition.
A man capable of smooth-talking Abram-ovich and other powerful club owners in his native Israel, Grant must be baffled that he has not yet been able to turn the tide of public opinion in his favour. He often mentions his "friendships" with other famous managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, in what seems like a slightly desperate attempt to establish his own parity with them. He likes to remind his audience that he was Israel's national manager, in case we should doubt his experience.
Yesterday, Grant brushed off the suggestion that the Carling Cup final was a tactical defeat for himself by the Spurs manager, Juande Ramos. He said that he did not regret any of his selection decisions at Wembley on 24 February and was pleased for Ramos – "He's my friend, he won the trophy" – adding that Chelsea faced an intolerable pressure. "When you win against Tottenham in the league, it's reasonable," Grant said. "When we lose against them in the Carling Cup, it's a big match. I accept that's our life. I'm sure that if we win [tonight] it'll be reasonable. If we lose, it's a big match."
It is a fair point, although he could hardly protest that he thought otherwise when he took the job in September. Notwithstanding the shiftiness with which he stepped into Jose Mourinho's position, it seems that Grant is, as far as such characters exist at the top of English football, an affable bloke. He does not need a team of PR consultants to tell him that, in terms of media performance relative to his predecessor, he is a lone tambourine-shaker to Mourinho's full-piece symphony orchestra.
To find out more about Grant as a person requires looking back to the time he built a decent career in football management in Israel. There were sniggers about him in his native country that he did not properly move out of his parents' home until his mid-thirties when he made up for lost time by marrying his wife, Tzofit, a larger-than-life television celebrity. There is also the car accident in his late teens about which not much is known and that Grant claims put an end to his playing career.
This month he gave a friendly Israeli newspaper exclusive access to a behind-the-scenes look at Chelsea's high-security Cobham training ground – a report that revealed very little indeed. It is curious that Grant's star was never higher in Israel than after his first league title with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the 1991-92 season when, as a 36-year-old coach, he cleared out all the big names and put his faith in youth. He was perceived as ruthless, charismatic and prepared to dispense with famous players such as Uri Malmilian, who means nothing to British football fans but was a major figure in Israeli football.
Hitherto at Chelsea, the biggest problem is that he has appeared to have done the opposite. Henk ten Cate and Steve Clarke run training and Grant picks the team on the morning of the game. The old joke among some at the club being that he selects it so late because he has to wait for the text message from Abramovich.
Unfair? In his defence, Grant has certainly showed no charity to Andrei Shevchenko, who will be lucky to make the bench tonight. Yesterday, he spoke the usual manager's stuff about the "strong mentality" of his team, and this match and Sunday's against Arsenal could be the making of the season. He needs victory over both teams, although Arsenal are the bigger scalp, to show that he can mix it with the managers who he claims to be such good friends.
With Chelsea still alive in the Champions League quarter-finals, Grant will then have the summer to think about, when he needs to establish himself by taking on more of the established figures, with Frank Lampard the most obvious target. Like the end for David Beckham at Manchester United and Thierry Henry at Arsenal, Lampard's career at Chelsea has almost certainly run its course. If they played it right, both the manager and player could make Lampard's departure look like a personal triumph of ambition over sentiment.
First of all, Grant could do with Lampard's goals tonight. You feel his time at Chelsea, however long it lasts, will be a constant struggle against scepticism – two wins in the next five days would put him on his way.
Taken to the Bridge? Grant's hit-and-miss record at Chelsea
3 October: Valencia (CL, away) Won 2-1. Impressive display at the Mestalla as Chelsea come from behind with goals from Didier Drogba and Joe Cole.
30 January: Reading (PL, home) Won 1-0. Ninth successive victory equals Blues' club record.
1 March: West Ham Utd (PL, away) Won 4-0. Respond to Wembley loss.
16 December: Arsenal (PL, a) Lost 1-0. A poor showing at the Emirates sees title hopes dented.
24 February: Spurs (LC, neutral) Lost 2-1. Out-thought by Juande Ramos after extra time.
8 March: Barnsley (FA Cup, away) Lost 1-0. Outfought by Championship side at Oakwell.Reuse content