"What answer can I give to that... ?" Avram Grant's indifferent standard of English is one of the lesser appreciated reasons why his public image still leaves much to be desired but he was struggling for diplomacy, not vocabulary, when asked whether his Chelsea side would be trailing in Manchester United's wake had he – and not Jose Mourinho – been in charge at the start of the season. "Huh? huh? Simon will answer instead of me," he continued, looking at his club's communications director, Simon Greenberg, for help. "He'd better answer. No, I don't know."
But Grant knows precisely what he thinks. He has already told Roman Abramovich that Chelsea would be challenging United had he taken over before 19 September and when his momentary reticence dissolved on Saturday evening he said as much. "It's a fact that we lost a lot of points at the beginning and needed to chase after other teams," he said. "We didn't start the season that well, so we've needed to chase after others. It's not easy, the psychology of doing that is not easy."
Grant is still getting to grips with Manchester – he forgot to bring out his overcoat for the first half at Eastlands on Saturday and shivered in his baggy suit until half-time. But his argument about the season's early weeks is hardly cast iron. When Grant took the manager's seat for the first time against Manchester United on 23 September Chelsea had managed 11 points from their first six league games under Mourinho – precisely the same number as United. The 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford did not help but there was hardly a psychological deficit.
Whether Abramovich will hear out Grant's protestations might depend on Chelsea's Champions League progress, with ground to recover on Fenerbahce tomorrow night – but the reality is that he may not survive to shape a squad of his own, as he desires, this summer.
Grant seems to be trying hard to convince himself that Manchester United can be caught – "I have to believe that's the case. In life you have to believe, and there's no point in being in football if you don't believe," he said – but, asked to point to a weakness in United, he could find none.
Sven Goran Eriksson certainly knows where his money is going – "If I was putting £10, it would be on United," he said after watching a Richard Dunne own goal and a Salomon Kalou strike help Chelsea cruise to victory despite them resting Ricardo Carvalho, Claude Makelele and Didier Drogba. The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo – "the best player in the world" as Eriksson described him – has as much to do with it as their points advantage, Eriksson believes. But he does feel that Grant – with six wins out of eight and his side unbeaten since travelling to the Emirates on 16 December – may also be the victim of the game's desire for personalities. "In that way, there's a big difference between Mourinho and Grant," said Eriksson. "I hope he's stronger than that, because who could care less."
The events of the afternoon did little to present Chelsea as a side in possession of the effervescence which Mourinho's teams lacked. Sir Alex Ferguson might have had a season to forget against Eriksson's side but United's attacking instinct does tend to prevail against teams who look as flat as City. Michael Essien was a visionary, providing the essential pass in the build-up to both goals, Kalou worked purposefully and Nicolas Anelka proved why Eriksson felt aggrieved to have been gazumped by Grant in the pursuit of him. But Chelsea simply looked like a side preparing for Europe.
City's conclusion to the season is proving miserable, with the home leg of the Youth Cup final against Chelsea arguably the most appetising prospect after the 1-1 away leg. Joe Hart's two quite brilliant saves – taking the ball left-handed from Anelka's boot after Lampard set him through; then palming an Anelka header on to the bar and scooping it away – and Nedum Onuoha's two immaculate first-half blocks before he was taken off with a dislocated shoulder and a wrist injury underlined the club's extraordinary recent record in developing England prospects.
Goals: Dunne og (6) 0-1; Kalou (53) 0-2.
Manchester City (4-5-1): Hart; Corluka, Dunne, Onuoha (Jihai, 59), Ball; Ireland (Caicedo, 75), Gelson, Johnson, Petrov, Elano (Vassell, 65); Benjani. Substitutes not used: Isaksson (gk), Hamann.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cudicini; Belletti (Ferreira, 86), Alex, Terry, A Cole; Essien; Kalou, Lampard, Mikel, Wright-Phillips (J Cole, 52); Anelka. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Shevchenko, Ballack.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Manchester City Gelson.
Man of the match: Essien.
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