Chelsea 1 West Ham United 0: Grant satisfied but Blues fail to sparkle
When Lex Luthor goes into partnership with General Zod in Superman II, his request in return for helping to defeat Superman is to be emperor of Australia. He asks for it so nonchalantly – "I have a thing for ocean-front property" – that he might as well be asking to borrow General Zod's lawnmower. When Roman Abramovich made Avram Grant the Chelsea manager it felt like a gift of relative proportions.
Except Grant did not have to defeat anybody, he just hung around at Chelsea for a few months looking awkward, and soon enough Jose Mourinho was out and one of the most sought-after jobs in world football was his. Even he seemed to be embarrassed about his good fortune in those surreal early days but increasingly not any more. The man who was promised the earth came out fighting on Saturday when his team reached second place in the Premier League with a thoroughly drab win over West Ham.
Armed with a slightly revised version of recent history, Grant, in his own understated way, portrayed himself as the man who was launching the revival. "Especially after nobody gave us a chance after what happened in the beginning of the season," he said. "Nobody gave us a chance of being one of the teams to finish at the top of the league.
"All of my life, I have been asked whether I have something to prove. I don't have anything to prove to anyone. I just need to do my job."
The quibblers among us would point out that when Mourinho left Chelsea in September they were not exactly experiencing relegation form – in fact they were in fifth place. It is certainly laying in on a bit thick to say that no one gave Chelsea a chance; more accurate to say that no one gave their new coach a chance. He has now gone 14 games without defeat, a run which, with respect to Sunderland who are at Stamford Bridge next, will probably become 15 on Saturday. Mourinho dropped seven points in six Premier League games before he was pushed out; so far Grant has dropped the same amount over the course of nine games.
In other words, no one is convinced just yet. Normal life continues at Chelsea, they are still churning out the secret dossiers and DVDs over grievances with referees and still moaning about the opposition. Grant accused West Ham of being defensive on Saturday which just was not the case. West Ham had a go and might even have scored if they had a better finisher than Carlton Cole or the substitute Dean Ashton, who now has the physique of a linebacker rather than a centre-forward. "West Ham played very, very physically," Grant said. "I think they deserved more yellow cards than they got."
To which Curbishley replied: "That's Avram Grant. He's got his own opinion. He's been put in a position where he's got a big, big club on his hands. So, perhaps he feels he has to make some big, big statements. I don't know. If people think we were negative, I don't think so. Teams have come here and got a real hiding and got nothing."
Of course, everyone is still waiting for Grant to come good on that promise to turn Chelsea into English football's lovable entertainers playing in a style so exhilarating that oxygen masks will be required at Stamford Bridge to prevent home fans from hyperventilating with excitement. Had they changed? Curbishley offered the following opinion.
"I just think that the big thing since Avram took over is that John Terry's come back, Frank Lampard's come back, Drogba's on fire," he said. "I don't know if they were all there when Jose had them. I think he [Grant] has come in and done what Gary Megson's done [at Bolton]. I think he's just said: 'Get on with it. You're all good players.' I don't think he's changed too much. He can't change the personnel because he can't do anything about that at the moment. I think he's got a really good side and he's asked them to get on with it."
What he was saying is that Grant has simply picked the players Mourinho could not play because they were injured at the time. And, er, that's it. Which is exactly the same conclusion that anyone currently watching Chelsea would also come up with. Apart from marginalising Andrei Shevchenko even more than Mourinho dared, Grant has played pretty much the same as before. A 4-1-4-1 formation. Nick a goal. Grind it out. And that much is true, although no one at Chelsea dare say it. It is not so much a case of the emperor's new clothes, rather plenty of his old clothes.
In all honesty, Chelsea are still about as interesting to watch as they were under Mourinho. Sometimes you find yourself glancing down at the dugout expecting to see the man himself still there, wearing the trademark brown suede slip-ons and shouting at Joe Cole for giving the ball away. But instead on Saturday, there was Grant, looking uncertain and worried before Cole took the ball round Robert Green to finish from a difficult angle in the 76th minute.
After Sunderland and Valencia, Chelsea play Arsenal and Liverpool in the space of eight days later this month. Perhaps it will be in those games that Grant shows us he is the maverick, devil-may-care attacking coach. Or perhaps he will play it safe as he has done so far.
What he knows for sure is that he has all the time and financial support he needs from an indulgent club owner to make this team play differently to the way it did in the Mourinho years. It is the kind of employment terms most Premier League managers can only dream of, and Grant will have only himself to blame if it all goes pear-shaped.
Goal: J Cole (76) 1-0.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cudicini; Belletti, Alex, Terry, Bridge; Mikel; J Cole (Makelele 89), Sidwell (Wright-Phillips 66), Lampard, Kalou; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Ben Haim.
West Ham (4-4-1-1): Green; Neill, Gabbidon, Upson, McCartney; Solano (Ljungberg 74), Mullins, Parker (Spector 79), Etherington (Ashton 79); Boa Morte; Cole.
Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Collins.
Booked:Chelsea Mikel, Kalou, Belletti, Terry, Lampard West Ham Solano, Etherington, Mullins.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorks).
Man of the match: J Cole