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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
You would think that, as the single most important match of their history looms up on the horizon, Chelsea might try to put a lid on the gossip and focus on the football, but nothing is ever that simple at Stamford Bridge. Faced with a choice of either (a) clarifying Avram Grant’s future or (b) just ignoring it altogether, the Chelsea hierarchy chose secret option ‘c’ and opted to further muddy the waters.

“We owe thanks to our entire management, coaching, playing and backroom staff for what we have achieved this season,” said chairman Bruce Buck, carefully absolving Grant of any credit. “Whatever happens, we’ve had an exciting season.”

You can say that again. From dumping the most successful manager in the history of the club just four months after a cup double, to replacing him with an unpopular unknown, to seeing an unlikely resurgence in the league, to reaching Moscow, you certainly can’t complain of boredom. However, I think the one thing, besides that big, shiny trophy, that Chelsea fans would want right now is just a bit of stability.

Grant himself has admitted recently that he may not be picking the team soon.

“If the club is not happy with me, no problem,” he said in typically honest fashion. “If I'm not happy with them and I want to leave, I don't think they will make any problems either. But, for the moment, nothing happens.”

And he’s absolutely right. Nothing happens. The chance to present a unified front is gone. The opportunity to end the uncertainty and concentrate on a European Cup Final is gone. Instead, Chelsea are forced to rely once again on the astonishing reserves of strength and character in their already confused players. Can they continue to pull results out of thin air against more relaxed, settled opponents?

I’ve spoken to people close to goings-on at Stamford Bridge and the feeling is that is a lot of stories have been blown out of proportion. That one about the delegation of players going to Buck and asking for Grant’s removal has been widely dismissed as the product of an over-active imagination, but something’s certainly not right. The most worrying sight was the complete lack of response from Henk Ten Cate and Steve Clarke when Steven Gerrard knocked Grant off his feet during the second leg of their semi-final. They just watched their boss topple into the dug-out without even raising an eyebrow. If Gerrard had done that to Jose Mourinho, the backroom staff would have torn the Liverpool captain limb from limb and carried his head around the stadium on a pole. Here, there was nothing but dead-eyed apathy.

In a funny kind of way I’m actually starting to quite like Grant and, though this may shock a few people, I’ll be sticking a few quid on his side for tomorrow night. I’ve got a feeling that in spite of everything, they’ll sneak a win, but even the biggest trophy of them all won’t make his job any more secure. Grant is, it seems to me, a good man in a bad position. His bosses have done nothing to prevent the names of Roberto Mancini, Sven Goran Eriksson and Frank Rijkaard from being whispered in the corridors of power, they’ve done nothing to secure his position and they’ve done nothing to help the players focus. Grant, and Chelsea fans, deserve better.
I don't know if it's the same in Singapore, but here in England there is a strange glint of expectation in the eyes of the Manchester United fans. Every one that I have spoken to is confident, perhaps too confident, of victory in Moscow tonight. It might be that clinching the EPL title has given them a false sense of security. It could be that, as I reported yesterday, Chelsea seem intent on causing their own off-the-field distractions. Whatever it is, those fans had better hope that the players aren't feeling the same way, because I've got a hunch that Chelsea will win this.

Sir Alex Ferguson's team selections for the final shake-down have caused some concern and his tactics have been alarmingly negative at times. Against Barcelona in the semi-finals, there was no sign of the gorgeous, expansive football that has characterised United's season. There was just gimlet-eyed containment as they put their backs against the walls and repulsed the red-and-blue waves, sneaking out to create chances on the break. Against Chelsea, Sir Alex dropped Cristiano Ronaldo and his side barely crossed the half-way line in the first 45minutes. They needed a second half aberration from Paolo Ferreira just to get back in the game. That wasn't the United that the neutrals have grown to love.

In fact, when you look at the fixtures, they've not really played well since beating Arsenal at Old Trafford. I know that they put four past West Ham with ten men, but the Hammers played so appallingly that day that I suspect we could rustle up a team of me and ten readers, and we'd at least have held them to a draw. Against Wigan in that vital final fixture, they might have seen their title hopes disintegrate altogether, had it not been for their lucky amulet, Steve Bennett. Right up until the end of March, when they obliterated Aston Villa, they were at their magnificent best, but since then they've looked understandably tired.

Chelsea should really be just as exhausted, having played more games, but they seem to have some kind of supernatural resilience to fatigue. They've also been performing much better towards the climax of the season, beating an in-form Newcastle, crushing the hopes of their old nemesis Liverpool and, of course, completely outplaying United themselves at Stamford Bridge. United fans will suggest that their possession of this year's EPL title gives them the psychological advantage, but I don't think that will be the case. Chelsea's players will be able to look their opponents in the eye and say, "we know that we can beat you." With speculation about almost every key Chelsea player, with uncertainty surrounding the club, with the hierarchy giving no clues about Avram Grant's future, this could be the last hurrah of a great side.

There's also the state of the pitch to worry about. When even UEFA mouthpiece William Gaillard starts to express doubts about something, you know that there may be a problem. If the turf starts to cut up, then it won't suit Manchester United's short passing game at all. Chelsea have shown signs in recent weeks that they can knock the ball about just as well, but only one side can quickly shift and adapt to a long-ball game and it's not the team with two midgets up front.

Manchester United are the better footballing team, they are the better supported team, but they are not necessarily the most effective team. Chelsea have the form for the occasion, they have the players to suit the conditions and they have that curious mental strength that enables them to keep fighting and to keep snatching improbably victories against the odds. Manchester United fans might think that they're on the brink of a special victory, but I fear they may be perilously close to disaster.
Against Barcelona was an entirely different game to the Chelsea match...

United were in the middle of their "Injury Crisis" and simply could not rely on Brown enough to bombarde Barcelona with the full attack that most teams receive... If they did, they were prone to Messi catching them on the break as Brown just isn't as reliable as Vidic. To be honest, I thought Ferguson's selection and methods against Barca was a stroke of genius, having Tevez and Ronaldo grafting up the pitch whilst almost everybody else was defending for their lives.... They even made Ji Sung Park look useful.

Ferguson knew that no matter what happened at Stamford Bridge, United would win the league if they won their last two games. Why risk the player who would unlock the defences of these opponents against a defender who, as poor as he has been this season, seems to have the beating of Ronaldo... Ashley Cole seems to have this mental advantage over Ronaldo which certainly confuses me, mainly because in both Blue and White in recent years blades of grass seem to give Cashley grief.

I'm expecting an incredibly cagey affair tomorrow night... or at least i'm hoping it's that way, as my Sports writing exam is to file copy for the game and i'd much rather it be dull than for me to miss the game of the century with no sound on :'(