No grand gestures but Grant shows his trophy intent
Jose Mourinho always took the Carling Cup seriously. Few will forget the five-finger salute the former manager aimed at the private boxes when Chelsea won the trophy last spring, beating Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium.
Roman Abramovich certainly didn't. The gesture was aimed directly at the Chelsea owner as a reminder that the Special One had now delivered a special five. Landing the League Cup for a second time represented his fifth prize since he arrived in England, Mourinho later told us (he was even counting a Community Shield, although he did later add an FA Cup).
Of course, he said the raised fingers were not for the benefit of anyone in particular. But he did so with that grin that betrayed the fact. The gesture was precisely for the Russian billionaire and it was mentally stored away by him as yet another reason why, eventually, Mourinho had to go.
It would be impossible to imagine Avram Grant ever contemplating such behaviour. He's a far more political operator than the Portuguese man-of-war. But he certainly has one thing in common with Mourinho: he knows the importance of winning a trophy. For him, at this fledgling stage of his unlikely career as Mourinho's successor, this certainly is a competition to be treated with due respect.
"I feel we can win any competition," Grant said when asked how he felt about reaching the last four. "You need to believe as a coach. I cannot lie and tell you this is our first priority. But if we're in this competition we want to win it. This is the first trophy but the last trophy is the important one, a little bit more than this."
That was in reference to the European Cup final next May which has clearly been identified as the priority by Abramovich and, therefore, Grant, even if he has just been awarded a four-year contract. Rumour has swirled around that there is an exit clause in the deal – if Grant does not win a trophy, he can be sacked. That is surely preposterous, as if he does not win a trophy he will probably be sacked anyway. And given that Abramovich parted with £18m to get rid of Mourinho, pay-off packages are hardly likely to be a concern.
Liverpool's Rafael Benitez has probably checked the small print of his contract in recent weeks, given the friction that has existed between him and the club's new owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks. They met after Sunday's 1-0 defeat by Manchester United which, with Chelsea's loss to Arsenal, means that these two clubs must now be classified as Premier League outsiders.
Benitez's position is far more in doubt than Grant's, despite that convincing Champions League victory in Marseilles last week, with an indicator of just how precarious it is coming in the next few weeks, once the transfer window opens. He has stated what he wants but there is little likelihood of him getting his way. Coaching and preparing the team, as he so tetchily put it a few weeks ago, is what he has been told to concern himself with.
And winning matches. For this encounter there was no surprise in the nine changes Benitez made from the weekend. There was also no surprise in the seven which Grant made to his Chelsea line-up, especially as, with Ricardo Carvalho returning from injury and Michael Essien free of suspension, it was arguably stronger than the one that took the field at the Emirates. With Andrei Shevchenko and Joe Cole both limping from the field at the end, however, there may yet be a price to pay for such a selection come this weekend and then the usual busy Christmas programme.
And there was another significance. This was Grant's third meeting with a team from the so-called Big Four and, having lost to Manchester United and to Arsenal, a victory over Liverpool, albeit a weakened Liverpool, provided a psychological boost. The personnel may have been different but he was sharing the touchline with Benitez – and once again Chelsea stopped the Spaniard's team from scoring at Stamford Bridge.
There was intent. There may not have been the quality or intensity but there were opportunities. Petr Cech and Charles Itandje, the stand-in Liverpool goalkeeper, made smart saves before the goals while that intent also spilled over in the tackle, especially with Peter Crouch's challenge on John Obi Mikel.
Arsenal v Tottenham
Chelsea v Everton
First leg, 8/9 January
Second leg, 22/23 January