Hard to survive on Russian Front

SO, in the never-ending soap opera that is Chelsea Football Club, we have now axed four managers in the five-and-a-half years that Roman Abramovich has been in charge. This is a record of transferring people to the gulags that would be impressive even in Stalinist Russia.

Claudio Ranieri is in charge of Juventus, who in a delicious twist of fate we meet in the Champions League in a fortnight. Jose Mourinho is at Inter. Together those two are dominating Serie A. Avram Grant, manager for Chelsea’s first ever appearance in a Champions League Final, is currently, and worryingly for us, unemployed, while ‘Big Phil’ Scolari has been sent packing ignominiously from Stamford Bridge, his reputation in tatters.

The timing of this has shocked even the most cynical of regular fans, and there are plenty of those, but in retrospect there was a whiff of gunpowder in the air less than a month ago. On that occasion Chelsea were playing, and struggling, at Roots Hall in Southend in an FA Cup replay which was almost called off at one point because of fog.

A surprise visitor to that game, alongside chief executive Peter Kenyon and chairman Bruce Buck was Eugene Tennenbaum, Abramovich’s closest aide at Stamford Bridge. Tennenbaum is a director of the club, and Managing Director of Millhouse UK, the vehicle involved in the original takeover of Chelsea.

It was Tennenbaum who sacked the popular Ranieri by phone. It was Tennenbaum who was seen stalking across the pitch with his Russian leader on the night that Jose Mourinho departed, and he is likely to have been involved in the ruthless despatch of Avram Grant just days after Chelsea lost their debut Champions League Final to Manchester United on penalties.

The arrival of the former KPMG corporate finance expert in the stands of a third division club on a cold January night was a mind concentrator of the first order and Chelsea duly won 4-1. But those of us who went to the game thought it curious that the Kiev-born Canadian had such a surprising appetite for the dubious midweek glories of the FA Cup third round. Now, as the mist clears, we can see that the writing was on the Kremlin wall.

That Southend match had followed a craven performance at Old Trafford — possibly the worst effort by a Chelsea team in Manchester in the three decades that I have watched them — and was succeeded by another feeble performance at Liverpool, massively disguised by the stupidity of Mike Riley in sending off Lampard.

Chelsea have not played well since October. The high water mark of the brief Scolari reign was marked by a 2-0 defeat of Aston Villa at home and a 5-0 victory at Middlesbrough. After that opposition managers sussed that if the full-backs were put under pressure that Chelsea had no width and no supply line. Home defeats followed to Liverpool and Arsenal, we were taken apart by Roma in the Champions League; Burnley knocked us out of the Carling Cup and we scraped into the final 16 of the Champions League.

The support at Stamford Bridge has been increasingly vociferous about the lack of tactical imagination, and an absence of commitment from the players including Drogba, Ballack, Deco, Malouda, and a host of other senior professionals. Certainly the loss of Michael Essien at the start of the season was a grievous blow, and that was compounded by another serious injury to Joe Cole, even though he has not been playing well for months. Only Lampard, Terry and Ashley Cole have put in consistent shifts, and their irritation has been evident in recent matches.

There is no argument that Scolari was not backed in the transfer market in the same way as previous incumbents. Since the fiasco over Robinho the screws have been down hard. That may be to make the club credit crunch compliant, or it may reflect some other view that Scolari was nothing more than a short-term appointment to bring in the season ticket revenue. But he has turned out to be remarkably short-term, even by Chelsea’s notorious standards.

Readers of this column will know that I was underwhelmed by the Brazilian’s appointment and questioned whether his reputation as an international manager made him an appropriate choice for the pressures of the Premier League.

And so it proved. I am not one of those who booed the display against Hull, although I understand the feelings of those who did after witnessing the consistent decline in performance and spirit since the autumn. And the mood in the pubs around the ground on Saturday night had certainly taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

Apart from an away tie at Watford on St Valentine’s Day our next two opponents are Aston Villa, a ground where we have performed poorly in recent years, and the double-header against Juventus.

These are not trivial matches in respect of Chelsea’s immediate future and only the outcome of them will prove whether the board has panicked or been prudent. At the moment I think it’s the former.

So, now we are back to where we were on the night the club parted company with Mourinho and the poison left over from that episode remains coursing through the veins of many supporters who thought it was madness then, and still do. But who can take over this car wreck of a club? At the time of writing Roman’s old buddy Guus Hiddink looks to be set for a caretaker role until the summer. Chelsea would be unwise to contemplate any arrangement with Avram Grant’s name attached to it because that really will tip the core support over the edge and into a red rage. The Zola/Clarke combination looks romantic, but it is surely too early for them? Lippi and Di Matteo? Who knows whether they are even interested in working with each other?

Expect the usual suspects to be trotted as we reach May and June. Ancelotti will be mentioned, as he was last year, but have we really got the patience for another poor English speaker? Van Gaal? Possible? Riijkaard? Another possible.

With Hiddink heading the betting for the next few months it has at least spared us the prospect of Nice Bloke Wilkins — you know, the one who said that supporters had been a “tad disrespectful” at the weekend. Now, I wonder what the Russian for “a tad” is?

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