Grant relaxed as Chelsea aim to extend home record
Saturday 09 February 2008
There are statistics, milestones and records surrounding every match but if Chelsea avoid defeat against Liverpool tomorrow then it will be four years since they last lost at home in the Premier League. That spans 76 games and three managers – and three very different managers at that – from Claudio Ranieri through to Jose Mourinho and now, of course, Avram Grant. It certainly also shows a resilience that has transcended whoever has been in charge.
Back then, when Arsenal were victorious in February 2004 and a title dream was dashed, Grant was a relatively anonymous coach of the Israeli national team. He had just endured a disappointing campaign, failing to qualify for the following summer's European Championship, which led to calls for his head and a continued onslaught on his defensive football and cautious, dour style.
The style has remained the same in the intervening years, at least in his public persona, even if the football has become a bit more exciting, largely of course because of the resources at his disposal, although even back then Grant believed he had what it took to succeed in England. "I wanted to be a manager," he said yesterday. "I thought I deserved a chance."
That may be so. But it was highly unlikely he would ever have been given that opportunity had he not sparked up an incredibly fortuitous friendship with Roman Abramovich. Even so Grant stressed that he disagreed with the claim by the Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp that he was always destined to take over at Chelsea.
"I came here as a director of football," he insisted. "As I have told you many, many times I'm not a man who plans his future. In my life I don't know what will happen tomorrow." Given Grant is a 52-year-old leading one of the world's biggest football clubs that's an alarming claim but the gist of what he meant is clear: he's a great believer in serendipity and it's seen him right so far in his life.
It's seeing him right just now too. A run of just two defeats in 31 matches since he succeeded Mourinho is hugely impressive even if those defeats were in the two biggest games he has overseen – away to Manchester United and Arsenal, admittedly in difficult circumstances. But the stats also reveal something else – when Grant was appointed Chelsea were fifth in the table, they are now third, but they were also just two points behind Arsenal. Now that gap is six.
Injuries have hit hard and neither has the African Nations Cup helped. John Obi Mikel has already returned and the other players will be back after tonight's third-place play-off between Ghana and the Ivory Coast while Frank Lampard should be fit for selection, having finally shaken off the thigh injury which has ruled him out since Boxing Day. Even so his role as the team's main man in midfield has been taken by Michael Ballack. John Terry, too, is back in training, having suffered three broken bones in his foot. "Slowly, slowly the injured players are coming back," Grant said.
The injury crisis means that Grant can be forgiven for not having too much sympathy for Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez who will be missing Fernando Torres tomorrow after he strained his hamstring on international duty. "He's a very important player for them," Grant said. "But I have had so many top players who have been out over the past few months so I know the feeling."
More revealing, when examining the league table last September and comparing it to now, is that Liverpool were then level with Chelsea, and Manchester United, on 11 points. Now they trail Chelsea by 11 and are out of the title race – although Grant was wary of agreeing with that assessment. "I cannot say out but it's too far for them because it's many points," he eventually admitted.
Previous encounters between the teams, in the Mourinho days in particular, were highly-charged, not least the two European Cup semi-finals. But that is not so likely to be the case now. Liverpool's faltering challenge and poor form has defused matters – almost as much as Grant's hang-dog demeanour. "There are so many reasons to be under pressure at Chelsea," he said when asked about the importance of preserving that unbeaten home record. "It's just one more reason."
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