The trouble with having such an easily identifiable gang of four in a league of their own in English football is that success becomes a matter of beating each other. So routine are the other matches perceived to be that contests between the top four assume the importance of cup finals; fine for Sky Sports, especially when the games are doubled up like today at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, but less fun for the managers.
"Can you tell us a big match that you have won?" Chelsea's manager, Avram Grant, was asked on Friday. The clear implication was that beating Manchester City 6-0 when City were third or winning 4-0 at West Ham counts for nothing these days; nor do all those gritty away wins at places such as Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Bolton. Grant, knowing what was behind the question, did not bother mentioning them, or even a 2-1 success at Valencia a fortnight after taking over.
Well aware that since he replaced Jose Mourinho, Chelsea have lost at Manchester United (2-0) and Arsenal (1-0) and been held at home by Liverpool, the best he could do was point to nine wins and four draws in 13 games since losing at the Emi-rates, and offer a reminder that last season Mourinho's team also failed to beat United or Arsenal in four attempts. It is little consolation either that Rafa Benitez's record against his rivals in the big four is so poor: four Premier League wins in 22 attempts.
Worse for Chelsea and Grant, he has lost two important cup games, to Tottenham and Barnsley, while the failure to kill off the thrilling game at White Hart Lane last Wednesday after leading 3-1 and 4-3 has forced the club into further denials that he will be sacked this summer.
"Peter Kenyon [Chelsea's chief executive] has made it very clear that nothing is contingent on winning the Champions' League or the Premier League," a spokes-man said. "That's why Avram has a four-year contract."
It is undeniable that his tactics and substitutions were questionable in the two Tottenham games, if less so at Barnsley, where the players simply did not perform. Had they not conceded the late equaliser to Robbie Keane amid the mayhem last Wednesday, before Dimitar Berbatov missed a chance to win the game for Spurs, Chelsea would be level on points with Arsenal going into today'sgame, and only two behind the leaders, United.
That is a position any sup-porter would have been happy with when a lugubrious Grant was introduced to a sceptical media last September, which is why he defends his overall record. He is even smiling more these days, and did so when defending his team's disciplinary record, claiming: "I think we are an exciting team playing good football. I don't think one person would say Chelsea are boring this year. We did a good job until the Carling Cup [final] and it was important to see what happened afterwards. The reaction was very good and we've scored many goals."
There have, indeed, been 15 of them in the subsequent four League games. Against the "wrong" teams, however. The ones that matter now are Ars-enal this afternoon and United, who visit Stamford Bridge late in April. "We intended it to be in our own hands," Grant said. Remarkably, and despite all the criticism, it still is.
Manchester Utd v Liverpool; Premier League, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1
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