Avram Grant, sounding more self-assured than at any time since succeeding Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge last September, leads Chelsea to Tyneside this afternoon for a match Chelsea cannot afford to lose if they are to maintain pressure upon Manchester United and retain the hope of reclaiming the Premier League title.
Should Chelsea lose, Manchester United would effectively be champions for the 10th time under Sir Alex Ferguson because of their considerably superior goal difference. The last fixtures of the season, United's at Wigan and Chelsea's at home to Bolton, would be irrelevant.
But after beating Manchester United and Liverpool in their previous two games, Chelsea and Grant are not underconfident about the trip to Tyneside, even if the Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan, has promised "a hell of a game" and that there will be "no better atmosphere than St James' Park".
Chelsea have not won there since 2001 but special occasions and all-or-nothing affairs are hardly novelties to them. "The players have made history," Grant said of reaching the Champions League final, "but we want more. We can take this club to another place. What we've done is big already, but we can make it bigger."
There was then a dig at Mourinho, the mentality of the Premier League in general and also what would normally be construed as a warning from a manager perceived to be in a stronger position than Grant. "I have a feeling that shouting more is somehow more respectable in England," Grant said, "not just from managers but players as well. I personally admire a person's way of thinking and look for intelligent players. I've done many things differently. I've changed the staff, the training, tactics, the players' way of behaving and many other things.
"Football is simpler than people think. I believe in simple methods, but quality methods. It's not a one-way process between a manager and his players. They may have had doubts about me, but I had doubts about some of them as well.
"I was also patient, and resolved not to make an opinion on them after one month. I wanted to check on them over a long time. You need more than quality to succeed, you need personality and to be a positive person. You check the players and they also want to see what you can do. But you can see on the pitch they give everything for the club. Sometimes I think in England you admire power more than good thinking."
With Richard Bevan of the League Managers' Association indicating yesterday that Grant has received assurances from the Chelsea hierarchy about his future, Grant is perhaps feeling sufficiently confident to assert himself inside and outside the dressing room. He is talking already of next season.
"The club don't think just about the last results, big clubs have to think about more than one year ahead," he said. "It doesn't matter if we win or we don't win. Even if we had lost to both Liverpool and United we'd still have the same plan. The history of every big club starts with doubts – Arsenal when Wenger came, United at the start under Ferguson."
Newcastle are buoyant, unbeaten in seven games since St Patrick's Day. But, as Keegan conceded, the upturn in form does not guarantee Newcastle will beat Chelsea.
"If we play to our very best," he said, "and they do, it will probably be a great game and they will beat us. Unless, that is, we get lucky, because they are a better team than us and the League tells you that. But, if we play to our best and they feel, 'Wow, this is another big game after two big games against Liverpool and Manchester United', then who knows?"Reuse content