Having a friend like Roman Abramovich must be a wonderful thing indeed, especially when he dishes out the kind of job that obscure coaches with precious little relevant experience do not usually get. The hitch for Avram Grant yesterday was that for all the marvellous things his new pal can do, he cannot influence opponents, fickle fate or even referees. Not yet anyway.
Played one, lost one is the record of the new Chelsea manager although on the final whistle yesterday Abramovich leapt to his feet and applauded in the directors' box rather than turning on his heel and walking out in a huff. A few minutes later he and his entourage set off, Sopranos-style, for the changing room presumably to reassure Grant that he was still in a job. Now Abramovich has the manager he wants, it is just the results that are a problem.
No points but at least Grant had plenty of excuses when Abramovich pushed open the door. Specifically, they will have focused upon the referee Mike Dean who made two erratic decisions, the first when he failed to award a penalty to Manchester United for Joe Cole's crude challenge on Patrice Evra on 17 minutes. Then, more crucially from Grant's point of view, there was the poorly-judged dismissal of John Obi Mikel on 32 minutes for a challenge on Evra that was worth of a booking yet ended up tipping the balance of the match.
Judging Grant's impact on Chelsea will take longer than this one game which had to be viewed through the prism of the upheaval of the last six days, the absence of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba and Dean's unique take on the match. The referee also allowed Carlos Tevez an extra 30 seconds of the allotted first half injury-time to score United's first goal, and awarded a late penalty to Louis Saha. The Frenchman was certainly guilty of embellishment, if not an outright con, in his tangle with Tal Ben Haim.
The new Chelsea manager has not levered himself into the centre of Abramovich's private court of confidantes without some sense of the politicking required to survive there. That much was evident in the way he flicked aside the questions about his coaching qualifications and shrugged off the opportunity to skewer Dean completely as his predecessor would no doubt have done. To say Grant lacks Jose Mourinho's combative instincts would be an understatement.
That even the Chelsea supporters seem unsure, and divided, as to who is to blame for the situation their club find itself in was evident in their songs. Mourinho was barely afforded a mention after a few early blasts of his name and, in the appropriate style of a totalitarian regime, Grant's existence was simply denied altogether. The chant of "Steve Clarke's blue and white army," was the Chelsea supporters' unusually oblique way of voicing an opinion on their new manager.
There was not really the great outpouring of love that Mourinho might have expected or hoped for. The only aspect of the whole saga the Chelsea fans seemed wholeheartedly agreed upon was the usual uncomplimentary chant about chief executive Peter Kenyon that is the fall-back option in times of crisis. The United fans lent their voices to that one as well.
A strange afternoon, which left Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner with that usual non-plussed expression and, no doubt, the nagging doubt that he may have to chuck another £200m at putting this show back on the road. Without Drogba, and Lampard, this is a very ordinary Chelsea team who even Mourinho would have struggled to make rise to the occasion yesterday. Chelsea held their own for the first 30 minutes but with Mikel's dismissal, United took over.
United? It was easy to forget them at times as the whole Chelsea plot took another absorbing twist. They are now second in the Premier League, just two points behind Arsenal with Chelsea in disarray and Liverpool's gloss wearing thin. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson – by far the most angry man in the entire stadium – was still chasing the fourth official around the coaching area and demanding the dismissal of Joe Cole in the closing stages.
It would be easy to say that life is simpler now for the champions but they have problems of their own, especially the enduring question of whether Tevez and Wayne Rooney are really compatible. The latter also worked himself into a snorting rage in the closing stages, pointlessly targeting Ashley Cole with a particularly bad challenge despite the fact that he had already been booked.
United faced a new Chelsea team which was much like the old Chelsea team – 4-5-1 with Andrei Shevchenko lumbering around on his own up front – but they never really dominated the away side even with the one-man advantage. The sending off came in innocuous circumstances as Mikel slightly overran the ball in midfield and, out of embarrassment, went in on Evra with one set of studs showing. United's players were quick to surround Dean but even they looked surprised when he produced a red.
Before then Joe Cole had, in his own box, brought down Evra with a tackle that was first man and then ball and deserved a penalty. Ironically for Mourinho it was exactly the kind of tracking-back duties that he spent three years imploring the midfielder to undertake. United's break came in the 48th minute of the first half, a corner recycled to Ryan Giggs on the right who hit a brilliant cross with the outside of his right foot for Tevez to head in.
Grant tried to advance some notion of independence in the second half when he substituted the woeful Shevchenko for the equally ineffectual Salomon Kalou. No signs of disapproval were discernible among Abramovich and his stone-washed denim brigade in the directors' box. Rooney let off a bit of steam by stepping all over Claude Makelele. Then Joe Cole scythed down Cristiano Ronaldo and Ferguson's temper exploded.
The challenge on Saha by Ben Haim was clumsy but not criminal and the Frenchman did a good job of his anguished expression and arched-back dive to win the penalty. The spot-kick was sent straight down the middle by Saha to tie things up. No matter, seemed to be the mood from Chelsea, the whole project starts again from today. It could prove to be another expensive experiment.
Goals: Tevez (45) 1-0; Saha pen (89) 2-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Tevez (Saha, 79). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Nani, Pique, O'Shea.
Chelsea (4-5-1): Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Ben Haim, A Cole; Essien, Makelele, Mikel, J Cole (Pizarro, 76), Malouda (Wright-Phillips, 69); Shevchenko (Kalou, 59). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Alex.
Booked: Manchester United Rooney, Brown; Chelsea J Cole, Terry.
Sent off: Mikel (32).
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Man of the match: Essien
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