Avram Grant is wary by nature. Chutzpah is in short supply. Not confident or gregarious, he prefers to do his work behind the scenes, mainly through his assiduous networking which has seen him rise without trace. Whispered conversations to movers-and-shakers have been his modus operandi for years. And so he was at his most comfortable yesterday when asked about when he first met Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than how he aimed to beat the most successful manager in modern club football.
That encounter came 15 years ago when Grant, then, and until recently, a little-known Israeli coach, spent a week at United's training ground observing and chatting. Today he will pit his wits against Ferguson and needs to earn a victory to keep the Premier League title race alive. Eventually the Chelsea manager ventured that, if his team is victorious, United's season may crumble.
"You saw what happened last week with games," he said of the three draws in their past five matches – including two in the Premier League – which he is using as evidence that a chink has been perceived in United's season. "It's not easy to play under this pressure. They've drawn twice in the last three games because we put this pressure on them. I'm optimistic by nature. Now we need to do our job, and it's not going to be easy. I'm always optimistic [that we'll win the title]. We are, again, in a position that if we win against them, anything can happen. We have to do that. It will be very difficult to do it, but anything is possible." If Chelsea triumph they will be level on points, although with a vastly inferior goal difference. If they lose it is game over. A draw? United would still be happy.
For Grant, a victory is a necessity and he reacted with humour when asked if a win would deliver a psychological blow to Ferguson both in the League and in Europe. "I'm not used to positive questions," he said. "If we win, we'll be very happy and we'd be happy at the end of the season. But first we need to win."
There is a huge difference between having to win and having not to lose, of course, and Chelsea's prospects – in the almost certain loss of Frank Lampard, who is grieving the death of his mother, Pat – rest on big games from Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack. Both have delivered, at times, this season with Drogba's performance in wresting victory away from Arsenal at Stamford Bridge not so long ago the greatest cause for optimism for Chelsea.
The striker wants to go and is almost certain to depart this summer, with Grant doing little to assuage the situation yesterday by questioning players leaking stories about their futures. But he needs a match-winning performance from Drogba, especially as he has summarily failed to bring the variations to Chelsea's game that he promised when he succeeded Jose Mourinho last September.
"It was a bit symbolic," Grant said, referring to that first-match loss at Old Trafford. "The game wasn't easy." He then went into a graceless rant at the performance of referee Mike Dean – who sent off the midfielder John Obi Mikel and later awarded United a penalty for a perceived foul on Louis Saha. "We didn't play badly," Grant said. "We lost to the referee. You remember the red card, the extra-time before half-time. I remember. Then there was a penalty that wasn't a penalty. There were a few strange decisions in that game. I always expect a fair referee, which we didn't have at United."
Today's official is Alan Wiley, who has been less inclined than other referees to dish out cards. It should, nevertheless, be a fiery encounter with Grant wary of a "proud team" who "come here to Stamford Bridge knowing that we're still in the fight." He added of Chelsea: "I see a team that's come from fifth to second place, showed a lot of spirit, mounted a good recovery. It's difficult to beat us and we've shown a lot. The pressure's good. I hope to have weeks like this all my life. It's an exciting week."
Defeat would drastically change that. "I'm sure you'll have the chance to ask if something negative happens," Grant said, "but I'm thinking positive."