Grant ready to launch title challenge to prove he's a match for Jose
It seems an age ago now that the great thespian Jose Mourinho departed Stamford Bridge, and removed all those familiar guises. Remember the one in which he smouldered with mischief as he riled the opposition – how he would have relished today's confrontation with Rafa Benitez – and those provocative, exaggerated gestures of indignation and pleasure?
That was actually a little over four months ago, and 31 games. Yet how soon we forget. That is invariably the way of football management, although Chelsea followers may just remind you about Jose's two titles. He left behind a man who was his antithesis, Avram Grant. The puppet of his employers, we assumed, until a more charismatic name could be summoned. That was not in Grant's script.
Under Grant, Chelsea's Premier League record has almost matched that of the Portuguese when he first arrived. The perception of Chelsea from followers of other clubs seems to have been curiously transformed too. It is almost as if the antipathy for Chelsea has diminished, if not disappeared, with Mourinho's exit. Clubs tend to adopt their manager's persona; Mourinho lived on the edge. Though the bitterness at Chelsea's two Champions' League semi-final defeats at Anfield still persists, it won't feel quite the same today at Stamford Bridge without the two warring factions of Mourinho and Benitez in opposition.
In contrast to his predecessor, the Israeli is heavy on understatement. In a dark overcoat, he could be a chief mourner. He was asked about happiness; something you tend to associate with that octogenarian from the city of today's visitors, Ken Dodd, rather than Grant. The Israeli responds with mock censure of the way he is perceived. "I am happy! What do you want me to do, dance? My wife says I am a very bad dancer!" A smile almost destroys that illusion of misery. He adds: "I enjoy it here, and I am happy when we are winning games. But people show happiness in different ways. I'm with the players every day and when I see [them] develop and go out and play and win, even with all of the problems we have, it makes me very happy."
From today, Grant's true contentment and, just as crucially, his man-management will be tested as Chelsea attempt to maintain their title challenge and continue an undefeated sequence at home which currently stands at 75. His players are returning from the African Nations Cup; John Obi Mikel may start today, though Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou will not face Liverpool. Frank Lampard, however, is fit again. That brings with it the luxury of choice, but does it also create dilemmas? Not according to Grant. "It is better to have the big players and have to make the decision than not to have them. It is good for them and the club when there is competition between big players because they need to prove themselves more than before."
Will there be competition between Drogba and the new signing Nicolas Anelka, or will they complement each other? "They can play together or not together, it's not a problem," says Grant, who has injected more style to Chelsea's play. "It is, in my opinion, better the way we're playing," he adds.
Today will be the 18th meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea in Benitez's three years at Anfield. The loss of Fernando Torres to injury is a serious setback that may, or may not, mean a starting place for Peter Crouch, following his substitute appearance for England on Wednesday.
"I don't know about confident," the striker laughs as he talks of the possibility. "It's not a case of whether you've done well in the last game; it's how he [Benitez] feels the next game is going to be." However, Crouch adds pointedly: "It gets to the stage when I'm not playing games – I'm not going to lie – it's frustrating. I feel I'm in the manager's plans and that I will play a fair amount of games towards the end of the season, certainly enough to warrant staying."
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