Avram Grant has fired the first shots in the battle of wills before next Wednesday's Champions League final by suggesting that Manchester United were helped by referees in their Premier League triumph this season. In a rare moment of controversy, the Chelsea manager said that some English referees had been subject to "influence" and that he was glad the final in Moscow would be refereed by a foreigner.
Having made an art of restraint since he took the Chelsea job in September from the great provocateur Jose Mourinho, Grant's comments are likely to catch the eye of the Football Association. The Israeli railed against what he saw as a bias in United's favour, claiming that some of the country's top officials favoured Sir Alex Ferguson's team. "I think in England there are some very good referees," he said. "But there are some, a few of them, you can influence, like you saw."
He was referring to three incidents, two of which took place last Sunday when referee Steve Bennett was in charge of United's title-clinching 2-0 victory over Wigan at the JJB Stadium. Grant mentioned "the red card [that was not awarded] for [Paul] Scholes on Sunday should have been. Then there was the penalty [awarded to Wayne Rooney]. He also said that John Obi Mikel's red card in Chelsea's game against United in September – refereed by Mike Dean – was undeserved.
The Scholes incident, in which Bennett did not give him a second yellow card for a blatant block on Wilson Palacios in the first half, has been the source of much discussion since Sunday. The penalty that was given for Emmerson Boyce's foul on Rooney less so. However, despite Grant's subsequent attempts to backtrack and congratulate United on their success, his comments are certain to strain already uneasy relations between the two clubs.
The Chelsea manager has always been reluctant to go on the attack this season, mindful of how Mourinho tested the patience of the club owner Roman Abramovich with his outbursts, but evidently he has taken counsel having watched replays of Sunday's game and decided to speak out. "I told you I believe in the tradition of the fair English game, I will not say anything against this," he said. "But what happened [against Wigan] is what I expected."
Ferguson will get his chance to respond today and he rarely passes up an opportunity to remind a referee of his responsibilities, even thought the man in question has not yet been named for Wednesday's game.
With the final also a focus for Grant's future, the Israeli was characteristically evasive on the subject. His protest that nothing had changed between him and the club's hierarchy was in the absence of any firm statement either way on his future. "I will make it very, very easy for you," he said. "I have a contract for four years. It's a contract between friends, even though we don't want to involve friends in business."
Later Grant contradicted himself, saying that "we do not involve friendship in our jobs". He behaves like a man whose job is safe although there is no evidence of that being unequivocally the case, especially given chief executive Peter Kenyon's recent refusal to give a definitive answer on Grant's future. "If the club is not happy with me, no problem," he said. "If I'm not happy with them, and I want to leave, I don't think they will make any problems either."
Grant said that he had only begun to change Chelsea according to his vision and had not wanted to act like "an elephant in a china shop and break everything" when he arrived. "If you want to be a big club, you need to be between the lions of Europe. That means you need to be in the final. We've reached that and now want more. In the next years you will see the development. I'm not saying we will be in the final every year but we need to be at least challenging and this will not be the last time we are in the final."