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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Sep 23, 2007

Grant struggling to banish Mourinho's ghost

Sung with both relish and predictability, the chorus rang out around Old Trafford: 'Where's your Special One?' Avram Grant was on the touchline at the time, but no one interpreted it as a reference to him.

Outside the ground, opportunistic t-shirt sellers had already produced garments comparing United's own Special One - as Sir Alex Ferguson was branded - with Chelsea's Sacked One (the Departed by Mutual Consent One would have used up too much ink, whether or not it's true).

Whether a consequence of his charisma, his quotes or simply his winning habit, Jose Mourinho can dominate thoughts even when he is nowhere to be seen. This was a match defined by its absentees: Mourinho for the entirety of the proceedings and John Obi Mikel for the last hour, sent off in the turning point of the match.

Also on the cast list of the missing were Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, providers of 54 goals last season. Without them, they have mustered a solitary strike in their past four matches. Meanwhile Manchester United, in the unusual position of being reduced to a sideshow at Old Trafford, advanced to second place in the Premier League thanks to goals from Carlos Tevez and Louis Saha.

Chelsea, meanwhile, are sixth; Roman Abramovich did not look happy though, with his naturally doleful expression, he rarely does. The European supremacy Peter Kenyon envisaged appears less likely, and the hubris of the habitually arrogant will be relished.

As the Manchester United supporters speculated on the employment prospects of their former bete noire, a chant of 'Sign on, Mourinho' was greeted with an emphatic endorsement of their former manager by the Chelsea contingent. Later there came the sound of 'Steve Clarke's Blue and White Army'. It is not often an assistant manager is serenaded - this seemed a nod to Chelsea past.

Meanwhile Grant, his supposed superior, went unmentioned. Afterwards, the Normal One was heard, however, showing he shares Mourinho's interests in referees, in this case Mike Dean. Tevez's opener came in the third minute of injury time at the end of the first half, though only two had been allocated.

'What do you think?' Grant asked his questioners rhetorically, before dead-panning: 'I think the referee was excellent. He made three mistakes. One the red card. One the goal after the addition of time. One the penalty.'

Chelsea have already began an appeal against Mikel's sending-off for a two-footed challenge on Patrice Evra, and they got unexpected support from Ferguson, though he felt Joe Cole should have been dismissed for a second-half challenge that only earned him a yellow card.

'It's a bit harsh but there's intent there and it could have hurt the boy,' said the Scotsman. 'When you see the sending off and then you see the Joe Cole tackle on [Cristiano] Ronaldo, that's a red card. That's the sort of tackle that can put players out of the game. It's a balancing decision by the referee.'

Grant disagreed. 'I think Ferguson can be very happy with the referee today. But Alex is Alex,' he said succinctly.

The first goal, and a partial cause of his ire, came when a half-cleared corner was returned by Ryan Giggs with the outside of his left foot and met by Tevez with a flying header at the near post. Having taken six months to open his West Ham account, it meant that, on his sixth start for United, the Argentine had finally struck. 'He's a very good player, brave as a lion and tough as nails,' said Ferguson.

With United headed for a fifth successive 1-0 win - the sort of statistic that suggests George Graham had been quietly added to Ferguson's coaching staff - they belatedly scored a second goal for the first time this season. As the substitute Saha turned inside Tal Ben Haim, he was caught by the Israeli's arm, though his tumble had a hint of theatrics. Saha himself stroked in the resulting penalty.

United's strikers are scoring again. Chelsea's, however, are not. It would have taken a brave man to drop Abramovich's confidante. Grant did not, though Andriy Shevchenko was the first player he withdrew.

Reflecting upon a no-win situation and suggesting his changes were made for footballing reasons, he said: 'I know that if Shevchenko plays, you will say it is because someone told me and if not, you will say it is because I want to show I am in charge.'

When he was substituted, it was to loud applause from the owner, presumably for Shevchenko's efforts rather than the decision to replace him with Salomon Kalou. Before then, there was one vignette of vintage Shevchenko, a turn so sharp that it sent Nemanja Vidic colliding into Evra.

But while Chelsea's new manager pointed out that the three players he introduced were all attacking, so were the men who made way. In the quest for spectacular football to captivate Abramovich, this was a match that suggested there is much to be done to take the mantle of United and Arsenal as the great entertainers. This remains demonstrably Mourinho's team, configured in his favoured 4-3-3 and, while they had a full complement of players, comfortable.

It is perhaps harsh to judge Grant's attacking intent - or lack thereof - from the actions of a 10-man team but it was telling that, even in the closing minutes, Chelsea still only operated with one forward.

And difficult as it is to turn around a match at Old Trafford with one fewer player, Chelsea used to have a manager who specialised in substitutions. That was why he was special.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Essien - Even in defeat, a majestic display of power, strength, energy and no little skill.

MAN UTD VERDICT: A more recognisable 4-4-2 suits United better yet, though this marked the first appearance of Rooney and Tevez as a partnership and the latter scored the winner, there is still a sense that United are a more cohesive unit when Louis Saha is on the pitch to provide a focal point to the attack.

CHELSEA VERDICT: For 45 minutes, this was testament to the solidity of the defensive structure Mourinho constructed. But, with Florent Malouda and Joe Cole off-form and little threat in attack, they displayed why they have difficulties when they concede. Drogba and Lampard, even if they were Mourinho's most steadfast allies, cannot return soon enough for Grant.

ALL BEHIND AVRAM? When asked he had the support of the entire dressing room, Chelsea's manager replied: 'I don't know'. There's confidence for you.


  • Any comments? Email Richard Jolly