Avram Grant has sent out a positive message to his Chelsea players ahead of Sunday's climax to the domestic season by the simple expedient of trashing the reputation of his predecessor.
A 2-0 win against Newcastle on Sunday afternoon kept the pressure on Manchester United in the race for the Premier League title. United face Wigan in the final game of the season on Sunday knowing victory would guarantee that the title remains with them because of their vastly superior goal difference – and one problem for Grant to deal with at the weekend will be the probable absence of Ricardo Carvalho, whose back injury forced him off on Sunday. But Grant was still talking up his side's chances ahead of the visit by Bolton Wanderers.
When Jose Mourinho left Stamford Bridge in September last year there was surprise in some quarters and consternation in others when Grant – seemingly the archetypal backroom type – was given the responsibility of taking the club onwards.
With United and Chelsea due to meet in the Champions League final in Moscow on 21 May, Grant is thrilled at the way the players have responded to his methods.
"I just need to do my job and be professional as I came here on a mission," he said. "The club was a good club but on the way down. Now we are on the right way.
"It is very exciting when you are creating something, especially at Chelsea. When we lost in the Cup it was like a funeral. It is a big challenge for me and one that makes me happy. We have fantastic players and fantastic staff. We are also playing good football, exciting football."
When Mourinho departed, Chelsea were indeed off the pace in the league and struggling to stay in the Champions League after drawing with Rosenborg at home, but Grant's claim may elicit derisive snorts from the Mourinho camp.
Nevertheless, apart from the Carling Cup final defeat against Tottenham, Grant has good reason to be cheerful, no matter what happens on Sunday or in Moscow. "We will never give up," Grant said. "No one thought of us as a candidate in the title race. Now only goal difference separates us from United. I know it will be difficult for them at Wigan."
One of Chelsea's most improved players this season, midfielder Michael Ballack, meanwhile, believes the club have the momentum in their favour.
United's 4-1 win at West Ham on Saturday swung the title race in their favour but Chelsea responded in style at a ground where they had not previously won since 2001.
Ballack said: "We saw the Manchester United game and I am sure that they watched our match on TV. It was important to show them what we could do, not just as they are our opponents in the league but in the Champions League too. We proved we are a very strong team. We have a good shape and look good. Now we will see what happens on Sunday."
Ballack expects Wigan to test United to the full. "We have put pressure on United," said the former Bayern Munich midfielder. "Now we hope Wigan are proud enough to give everything in the last game."
Ballack has been a revelation in recent weeks and scored crucial goals in big games. The German scored a brace in the win over United 10 days ago which really opened up the title race.
Then he made the breakthrough against an in-form Newcastle side. Florent Malouda added a late goal to secure the points they needed to keep the fight going right until the end.
Ballack's season began only in December following an ankle operation, which had left him on the sidelines for eight months. He said: "I had a difficult time but I am over that now. I have enjoyed the last weeks. I hope it keeps going."Reuse content