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Feb 4, 2008

Grant must undertake tough decisions

When Chelsea appointed a man with the appearance and all the cheer of the average undertaker, the assumption was that their title bid would be swiftly buried.

Now the verdict on Avram Grant is somewhat different, from those who regard his reign as a bizarre interlude to the growing group that consider him an unheralded mastermind, via a sizeable section of observers who believe he is the fortunate beneficiary of Jose Mourinho's personnel, structure and winning mentality.

Grant's public utterances reveal little. His English appears to deteriorate with every win, and with Chelsea victorious in nine of their last 10 games, he will soon be completely unintelligible if that run continues. Whatever Grant says, however, his actions in the forthcoming weeks will have an eloquence, because he faces a month when he could determine Chelsea's direction for the rest of the season and beyond.

At times, Grant's team selection in the last six weeks has been perversely simple, a case of simply rounding up the best 11 available personnel. With John Terry and Frank Lampard contemplating a return and the Africa Cup of Nations in its final stages, that is set to change. Following Nigeria's elimination, John Obi Mikel could face Liverpool on Sunday.

By the time Huddersfield visit Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup the following Saturday, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Michael Essien will provide Grant with further options.

And this is where problems may lie. Chelsea's injury list could contain a sprinkling of bruised egos by the start of March.

Terry, however, is unlikely to be one. It will be an exercise in the obvious to restore the captain at the expense of Alex, well though the Brazilian has performed and though Grant has a new £9 million defender in the shape of Serb Branislav Ivanovic.

Further forward, greater difficulties lie. Though there has been speculation that an attacking alliance of Drogba and Nicolas Anelka could verge on the unstoppable, that would require a change of formation. Given the often solitary path he has long pursued, the Frenchman, seamlessly integrated into the Chelsea team, has the character a lone striker requires. So, too, does the Ivorian.

It is not so much a question of whether a partnership boasting fearsome pace and remarkable strength from two accomplished finishers can operate successfully as to whether Chelsea's successful system of 4-3-3 should be recalibrated to involve two strikers. And Anelka's acquisition merely strengthens the theory that Drogba, so close to Mourinho, will depart in the summer. Until then, however, Grant's selection is intriguing.

And three wingers, in all probability, will have to be compressed into two berths in the team. Shaun Wright-Phillips has flourished infield with a roaming brief, though, contrary to descriptions, he has hardly been an inside-forward. Wright-Phillips' blend of the erratic and the excellent can infuriate but on form, he merits a place. So, too, does Joe Cole, meaning that Florent Malouda may be the man to miss out.

Cole has been described as one of the beneficiaries of the Grant regime, presumably by people who have forgotten that, under Mourinho, he was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award in 2006. And while revisionist thinking seems to suggest that the Portuguese's team was a flair-free zone, that was certainly not the case, especially when Damien Duff and Arjen Robben were in harness.

Hence the case for the retention of the roving wingers. Though Grant has deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation at times, it is essentially a variant on Mourinho's beloved 4-3-3, with a recognition of the importance of a lone striker and a midfield anchorman.

And the toughest choices come in the midfield. Claude Makelele's outings appeared rationed earlier in the season, but the last six games have provided a series of timeless masterclasses in efficient, understated midfield play, aided by expert reading of the game and perfect positioning. Mikel possesses greater physical attributes, but Makelele has pressed a case to be preferred to the young Nigerian in the major matches. As Essien's excellence dictates that he must start, there is only one remaining place.

Suddenly, there is a case for it going to Michael Ballack. The German's rejuvenation under the new regime was symbolised when he was granted the captaincy in the absence of Terry and Lampard. Confident, authoritative and looking capable of being a regular scorer, he has started to resemble a German midfield powerhouse again.

Lampard, however, has an impeccable record for his club over the last five seasons. As Mourinho seemingly designed the formation with his vice-captain in mind, with Makelele relieving him of defensive duties and Drogba supplying the flick-ons, he would find this a simple decision.

But the Englishman's continued incompatibility with anyone else with designs to be a goalscoring midfielder should count against him. Moreover, as with Drogba, doubts surround his future. And as Ballack is both the man in possession and the man in form, he merits the opportunity to continue his revitalisation in the Chelsea team.

Injuries and international call-ups have meant that a winning team is frequently changed, but, despite protestations to the contrary, a winning game-plan.

But if the Israeli really is his own man and if he is ready to take decisions with far-reaching implications, he could prove it by selecting Ballack ahead of Lampard.

Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.