New manager, but the same old machinations. Avram Grant may not possess the wit or waspishness of Jose Mourinho, but there was bitter sarcasm yesterday as he railed against the referee Mike Dean following Chelsea's tetchy 2-0 defeat by Manchester United that leaves them five points off the top of the Premier League table.
"I thought the referee was excellent," the Israeli said after presiding over Chelsea's fourth match in a row without a win. "He tried his best. He made only three mistakes. One the red card, one the added time and one the penalty. It was strange. One decision, OK. But three in the same game? It's strange."
Having disposed of one conspiracy theorist with the bruising departure of Mourinho last week, it seems that Chelsea have chosen another. Grant does not possess the credentials – either as a coach, with the League Managers' Association opposing his appointment, or a collector of trophies – or the panache of Mourinho but there was a "Special One"-like comment when he said that Sir Alex Ferguson should be "very happy" with Dean's performance.
Grant's remarks were the kind that land managers in trouble and it seems that, having been outrageously fortunate in landing his job in the first place, the 52-year-old's luck ran out yesterday. He certainly had a case with the first-half dismissal of John Obi Mikel for what Dean deemed a two-footed dive at Patrice Evra. Even Ferguson had sympathy with that one, describing the decision as "harsh" although he also added the qualification that there was "intent" from the Nigerian midfielder.
Chelsea later confirmed they would appeal against the decision with Grant saying: "If Alex was in the same circumstance with the referee, then you can imagine what he would say."
That may be so but Ferguson was right to point out that Chelsea were fortunate not to lose another player after Joe Cole's second-half lunge at Cristiano Ronaldo.
"When you see Joe Cole's tackle on Ronaldo, that's the kind of tackle that can put players out of the game," Ferguson said. "It was a straight red card. He gets a yellow card simply because the other player has been sent off."
United's opening goal, a header by Carlos Tevez, his first strike for his new club, came 30 seconds beyond the allotted two minutes of added time. In addition Louis Saha's penalty, late on, was a soft decision when he fell to the ground after being struck by Tal Ben Haim's outstretched arm.
"I need to think about it," Grant said. "Too many strange things happened today. If it's a coincidence then maybe I'm naïve a little bit."
There may also have been more trouble brewing for the inexperienced Grant in the directors' box. Sitting directly behind the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, and his right-hand man and Chelsea director Eugene Tenenbaum, was Marco van Basten. The former Milan striker is now the coach of the Dutch national team and was at Old Trafford as a guest of United, in his capacity as an ambassador for the sports firm Nike.
But it was the kind of presence, given the fact that he perfectly fits the mould of manager that Abramovich admires – young, a former world star and someone with personality – and was looking for earlier this year when he considered sacking Mourinho, that did not go unnoticed. Abramovich will have paid less attention to the chants of the visiting Chelsea fans for Mourinho, while there were none for Grant. After all, he has been here before when he disposed of Claudio Ranieri three years ago.
Grant himself said he did not feel any pressure. "It was very easy for me," he said of the chants for his predecessor, even if they were, admittedly, sporadic. "I like the attachment of the supporters to Jose. I remember that. It just shows our supporters are very good supporters. I have just been coach for three days so I cannot expect songs for me. I respect him very much and enjoyed working with him. Give me a little time and let's see what will happen.
"I haven't had time to be under pressure. It's a good pressure to achieve the best you can and achieve good results. Except the first five minutes, we played well. It wasn't a great game for both sides, United were not better than us. For me the most important thing was the spirit of the players and we can go on from here."
Ferguson proclaimed his side's performance in the opening half-hour to be as "good as we have played all season. There was penetration, great movement and passing. At that point we could have been two goals ahead."
The United manager admitted that the game had changed with the sending-off but added: "We were the better team. We got out confidence back today. The style and the tempo was back and I was delighted.
"We're looking more like ourselves now. We've played with too much caution. When we play with more courage and risk we are more of a team then," Ferguson declared.
United has no vacancy for Mourinho, says Gill
As Chelsea try to contain the fall-out from Jose Mourinho's departure, Manchester United's chief executive David Gill confirmed that Sir Alex Ferguson will remain at Old Trafford for a few years yet.
"Alex has a good few years ahead of him, so succession plans are not on the agenda," he said after Mourinho raised the prospect of one day landing the United job in his farewell address to the Chelsea faithful. "As and when Alex decides to step down we will look at all possibilities but we have a great team managing Manchester United on the pitch at the moment and we see no reason to change that at all."
Gill reacted with incredulity in response to rumours that Mourinho could be given some kind of coaching job at Old Trafford while he waited to take over from Sir Alex.
"It is not going to happen," said Gill. "We don't need it and we don't think it is appropriate. We don't want that kind of confusion.
"Mourinho is clearly a very successful coach, he has done well here in a relatively short period of time, but we don't need that kind of interference in our club."