The unhappy season of Chelsea striker Andrei Shevchenko will have a decisive effect on the politics of his club this weekend when Jose Mourinho has to decide whether or not to pick him in Saturday's match against Liverpool. The Ukrainian has made it clear he will be fit for selection and Mourinho will have to decide whether he can afford to leave him out.
The antagonism between the manager and Chelsea's ruling elite has many strands but much of it comes back to the belief among the advisors of Roman Abramovich that somehow Mourinho is responsible for Shevchenko's woeful start to the season. Fail to select the striker, and the peace between the manager and the club's ruling classes could be irrevocably damaged.
There were reports last night that Abramovich, who rarely misses a game, is planning to stay away from the match at Anfield, so disillusioned is he with his manager. Abramovich is said to be barely on speaking terms with Mourinho, while Shevchenko did little to douse the flames last night when he told his Russian website: "In light of recent events, I have certain misunderstandings on some issues with Mourinho. I think that only the club's top management is capable of resolving those issues."
Shevchenko last played against Macclesfield Town in the FA Cup third round but was not in the squad to face Wycombe Wanderers in the Carling Cup the club said he had a hamstring injury. The issue of whether he was fit to play or simply dropped was so delicate come Chelsea's home game against Wigan on Saturday that it was announced before the match to the stadium that he was still on the injured list. Shevchenko has started just one of the last six Premiership matches when he has been fit.
Mourinho's hand was weakened by Chelsea's run of three draws over Christmas in which his £31m man did not figure in the starting line-up. Having excluded Shevchenko from the "untouchables" in his team, and done little to defend the unimpressive performances of the darling of the Abramovich entourage, it was inevitable Mourinho would eventually clash with his club's owner, who regards the Liverpool game as the kind of high-profile match Shevchenko was bought to play in.
For Mourinho, the choice is stark. While Shevchenko has said he is ready to play, the Chelsea manager will rarely be under more pressure to get his selection right. Beat Liverpool and he will have cut Manchester United's lead at the top of the Premiership to three points by the time they face Arsenal and a resurgent Thierry Henry in London on Sunday. Lose and United could go nine clear.
Shevchenko, 30, came to Chelsea with a knee injury and went to extraordinary lengths to rid himself of it, even bringing in his own personal physiotherapist, Silvano Cotti, from his former club Milan. Since then, Cotti has been made a permanent member of the Chelsea staff and is listed by the club as among its masseurs. But it has been the performances of a sluggish Shevchenko which have bedevilled Chelsea.
The question of "getting the best out of Sheva" has vexed the Chelsea hierarchy to the extent that the Israeli coach Avram Grant seems to have talked himself into Abramovich's plans, partly on the basis that he is the man to turn around the striker's season. The possibility of Chelsea employing the former Israel national team coach, who has been working at Portsmouth, is the root of much of the discord between Mourinho and Abramovich.
The little-known Grant is understood to be so sure that Abramovich will give him a place at Chelsea that he has already discussed his plans to change the coaching structure, so there could be more upheaval.
It is something of an open secret that Grant is biding his time at Pompey until the way is smoothed for him into Stamford Bridge. He has close links with two crucial figures in and around the club: Frank Arnesen, the head of scouting and youth development and the Israeli agent Pini Zahavi who has been a big influence since the Abramovich takeover in 2003.Reuse content