Grant feels pressure as Essien keeps Chelsea in title race
Everton 0 Chelsea 1
His side had just climbed to within two points of Manchester United, but last night Avram Grant delivered a bizarre press conference at which he was barely willing to communicate and said he did not know whether his side were still in the title race.
Grant, whose Chelsea team had been less than convincing in securing the win which kept the title race alive – at least until Manchester United arrive at Stamford Bridge eight days from now – offered no explanation as to why he was refusing to answer questions. Staring at a table in front of him and fiddling with his track suit zip, the nearest he got to an explanation was: " Maybe [I'm] upset because it's been a bad season." But his incoherent performance provided the clearest indication yet that the pressures at the Chelsea helm are beyond him, and that he might be struggling to cope.
The question of the title challenge was put to him three times, without eliciting an answer, and after five minutes 39 seconds the press conference ended.
Grant, who rejected suggestions that either the TV scheduling which had seen Chelsea play here 72 hours after entertaining Wigan to enable Sky to cram in another live game, or a general dislike of a media who have questioned his future, might be the cause of his monosyllabic display. An explanation may have lain in the disjointed performance he had just observed out on the Goodison pitch, against an injury-depleted Everton side who are themselves limping towards the end of their season.
The match's defining moment was delivered by the vision of Michael Essien, and a neatly exchanged ball with Shaun Wright-Phillips which was returned to the Ghanian via Phil Jagielka to send him through to slot home. But it was the sight of the ineffectual Joe Cole, thumping the pitch in frustration that perhaps best summed up the night.
David Moyes might have been without Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman, but his side provided some of their classic defensive miserliness – Phil Neville and Lee Carsley allowing Chelsea minimal space in the last third and Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott demonstrating, in the way they dealt with the occasional threat of Nicolas Anelka, the strides they have made this season.
The unthinkable almost occurred for Grant's side – Petr Cech just pushing a 25-yard Manuel Fernandes free-kick around his left hand post after it bounced horribly in front of him in the rough in the eight-yard box – before they embarked on the only periods of the game that demonstrated the multi-million pound gulf between the sides. Salomon Kalou featured twice, ghosting past Tony Hibbert to level a dangerous cross which Yobo headed clear, then delivering an exquisite ball through the central channel which Wright-Phillips would have latched onto were it not for Jagielka's immaculate tackle. The goal arrived five minutes later but, as high points went, that was Chelsea's lot.
The second half would have made even worse viewing for a manager who had recalled the two Coles, Ricardo Carvalho and Wright-Phillips, all rested for Monday's Wigan draw. Exuding the air of a side that knew their season was on a knife-edge, Chelsea defended in numbers. After John Terry was penalised on the edge of the box Fernandes struck a free-kick just wide. Terry's timing was also called on to dispossess Yakubu after Victor Anichebe had levelled for him to shoot.
After making such good running for so long, Everton are facing a fight for fifth place, with Aston Villa's arrival a week on Sunday looking crucial since the Emirates looms after that. "It's a worry when teams are closing in," Moyes said. "We could find Villa arrive here just two or three points behind us." It will probably be three successive top six finishes for him but the way his side's spirit has gone – with just four goals in seven games – shows Everton to be at a significant staging post in their history. They must find investors.
Chelsea's title race will effectively be over if Manchester United draw at Blackburn and overcome Grant's men at Stamford Bridge. Another Chelsea guard of honour to greet United off the pitch perhaps? That really would have Grant lost for words.
Goals: Essien (41) 0-1.
Everton (4-4-2) Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Yobo, Lescott; Pienaar (Anichebe, 62), Carsley, Neville, Fernandes; Johnson (Gravesen, 62), Yakubu. Substitutes not used: Wessels (gk), Baines, Rodwell.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2) Cech; Ferreira, Terry, Carvalho, A Cole; Mikel; Wright-Phillips (Makelele, 81), Essien, Kalou; Anelka, J Cole (Malouda, 76). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Shevchenko, Alex.
Referee: M Atkinson (Leeds).
Booked: Chelsea Carvalho, Ferreira.
Man of the match: Essien.