A FOREIGN Chelsea manager, sinking to his knees and bellowing to the heavens in raucous celebration of a famous triumph over a much-loathed Premier League rival?
Avram Grant will never be Jose Mourinho but it is not just his victory salutes which are beginning to resemble his much-vaunted predecessor.
After being subjected to the sort of venomous criticism which would have broken lesser men, Grant is showing that he, too, has a touch of the magician about him. Two exhilarating victories over Manchester United and Liverpool in the space of five hectic days have not just sustained Chelsea’s hopes of reclaiming their Premier League title and claiming a first Champions League crown, they have banished many of the doubts which had shrouded their manager. Whereas his summer departure had been considered little more than a formality a month ago, the whispers emerging from west London now suggest Grant is here to stay.
He has, after all, now achieved something that proved beyond the capabilities of even the mercurial Mourinho: sweeping aside Liverpool in a Champions League semi-final and taking Roman Abramovich to within sight of the prize he covets above all others.
Defeat against United in the Moscow final on May 21 might still rekindle the old doubts but there is a growing sense that, in the last week alone, Grant has proved himself capable of fulfiling Abramovich’s vaulting ambitions.
Crucially, he is also receiving the backing of his senior professionals. Grant’s relationship with the Stamford Bridge dressing room has not always been an easy one, with various players relaying their disaffection with his training methods and man-management skills, or lack of them, to the media.
But many of those doubts have now been appeased by his impressive his handling of difficult issues in recent weeks: his kid-gloves treatment of the grieving Frank Lampard — who will be accompanied to his mother’s funeral today by his teammates and manager — his steadfast defence of Didier Drogba in the face of Rafael Benitez’s suggestions that the striker is a diver and, most importantly, in how he has prepared the side for the games which have effectively transformed their season.
“I would have thought he deserves to stay on next season,” John Terry, the captain, said.
“It’s for the club to make that decision, but things have been very good and results don’t lie.
“To get to where we are and to still question the manager’s role at the club is unbelievable. You look at the league table since the manager has taken over and he’s been very good. I think he deserves respect. The club has never got to a Champions League final before and he has played a massive part. Everyone deserves credit — the manager, the players, Steve Clarke, Henk Ten Cate — because at times it’s not been easy this year.”
THAT last comment was a reminder of the turmoil Chelsea endured when Mourinho was abruptly booted from office last September, 24 hours after a wretched performance against Rosenborg in the Champions League group stage had left Abramovich fuming in his executive box.
Anyone suggesting then that the Russian would be returning to his homeland for the final would have been packed off to the gulag.
Grant’s biggest achievement has been to prevent Chelsea’s focus being blurred by the whirl of off-field distractions since the club’s Night of the Long Knives, although it helps when he can call on men with the iron-clad spirit of Terry, Lampard and Drogba.
“We did not wait to September to believe we can reach the Champions League final — that was our target at the beginning of the season,” the Ivorian said. “Okay, there was some event (Mourinho’s sacking) that was difficult for the club, but the most important thing is to stand up and keep working as we did and the objective — to reach the final — did not change.
“Now we must win it. I prefer to lose the semi-final and be upset for two or three days — with a final it stays for years. It will be difficult but everyone is confident now.”
Chelsea might yet travel to Russia as champions of England, although for that fantasy to become reality, Manchester United will have to suffer stumbles against either West Ham or Wigan. That remains “an extraordinary” scenario, according to the goalkeeper Petr Cech, but even the improbable now seems achievable under Grant, Chelsea’s unexpected magician.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved