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Apr 17, 2008

Step forward, Avram Grump

Everton 0 - 1 Chelsea

Perhaps Jose Mourinho talked too much for his own good. This was the night Avram Grant said too little and, in the process, did much damage to his chances of maintaining the job few believe he merits. In a bizarre press conference, he contrived to undermine his own position with a remarkable sequence of non-committal, unhelpful and at times inaudible answers.

Strangest of all, he contrived to insist that he didn't know if Chelsea - two points behind Manchester United - were still in the title race. This was Avram Grump, unhappy but ineloquent and refusing to reply precisely why. Grant has had his monosyllabic and mumbling tendencies before, but this was a deliberate ploy, though quite what it achieved only he knows. And were he asked, he would presumably respond: 'I don't know.' His were the actions of a man seemingly struggling to cope, cracking in the limelight and ultimately, perhaps, signing his own P45.

'I have nothing to say,' he said at one point. In which case, why appear at all? Some may question - perhaps legitimately - what purpose press conferences serve. But they affect public perception and can act as a conduit to the supporters. When asked if he had a message to the Chelsea fans, Grant replied: 'No message.' What, they might have wanted to know, pleased him most with his side's performance. 'I don't know,' came the response.

'You can write whatever you want,' he murmured at one stage, echoing one of Steve McClaren's less well-advised answers. The verdicts are likely to be damning, even from his diminishing band of advocates. The last time Grant came to Goodison Park he muttered something about Albert Einstein that bemused his listeners.

• Click here to read the full transcript of the press conference

This was still stranger, a five-minute, 39-second exercise in obfuscation and miscommunication that suggested his unsuitability for his role. It appeared a protest against something though he insisted (briefly) not the television company that had the game rescheduled tonight or the newspapers that have criticised him. It seemed a display of petulance. Perhaps, for once, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Michael Laudrup, Guus Hiddink and Roberto Mancini would have struggled to emulate Grant. Maybe he managed something his predecessor couldn't.

But journalists laughed with Mourinho. They laugh at Grant. So, too, will a more widespread audience. Transcripts will be circulated and they make him appear ridiculous. His tour de farce culminated in the question: 'Have you ever played the yes or no game, Avram?' There was no reply.

It signified a complete breakdown of relations between him and the press. Whether or not a similar situation exists with his players, they contrived to beat a below-par Everton. Forty, largely uneventful minutes had elapsed when Essien belatedly injected some urgency and was rewarded with a little luck and a goal. As he advanced from midfield, an attempted one-two with Shaun Wright-Phillips brought an inadvertent touch from Phil Jagielka to turn the winger's pass into Essien's path. The finish was assured, even if the goal was undeserved.

It was the second time in four days that he had made the sort of run the absent Frank Lampard trademarked. It was another sign of Essien's versatility. His dynamism was required, too, with only he and Joe Cole looking capable of taking the initiative.

Thereafter, long-range shots from John Obi Mikel and Essien constituted the only efforts on Tim Howard's goal. Punished for failing to score a decisive second goal against Wigan on Monday, Chelsea showed little inclination to do so tonight.

But alarms were few and far between. Only Manuel Fernandes, taking advantage of Mikel Arteta's absence to demonstrate his excellence from set pieces, posed a threat, drawing one fine save from Petr Cech and whipping another free kick inches wide.

So Chelsea became the fourth side - after Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal - to win at Goodison Park. For the statistically inclined, Grant's record is similar to Mourinho's at the equivalent stage of his reign, but there is a significant difference. The Portuguese turned an expensively assembled team into a side who collected silverware; the Israeli is threatening to reverse that trend. The cost remains, the trophies don't.

But the model for them may have been on the Goodison Park pitch beforehand. Unconvincingly waving Everton flags, the Harlem Globetrotters came to Everton. Then their footballing equivalents arrived. Or so Roman Abramovich may fondly imagine, anyway. To everyone else, Chelsea represent the antithesis of the Globetrotters. One possess global renown for their style of play. The other do not. But one are an exhibition side, the other a resolutely pragmatic outfit whose sole raison d'etre is to win. On the night, Chelsea did. In the season as a whole, they remain unlikely to.

They are unbeaten in the Premier League in 2008 but unappreciated, amassing impressive statistics but not the admiration they covet. Football matches are easier to win than popularity contests or, Grant may reflect, votes of confidence from chairman Bruce Buck.

But it was still more functional than fantasy football. There was plenty of graft, but not enough craft. Amid talk of Kaka, Lionel Messi, Rafael van der Vaart and Franck Ribery in a summer spending spree, all would have been welcome tonight, but it may take the reported £100 million to make Chelsea entertainers. It may require, too, a different ethos.

And after Grant's virtuoso, and perhaps, valedictory performance of baffling his audience, a change in the dugout appears still more likely. 'I am still alive and you cannot kill me,' he told a radio interviewer. Perhaps not, but his career at Chelsea appears in its dying throes.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Essien - If only for displaying the drive to determine the points in the otherwise forgettable match that preceded Grant's more memorable display. He appeared to faint late on, though Grant struggled to confirm that.

• EVERTON VERDICT: Playing Andrew Johnson in a withdrawn role behind Yakubu did not work and appeared a negative gambit, while absentees meant the midfield was more dogs of war than school of science. Only in the defence, where Phil Jagielka executed a last-ditch tackle on Wright-Phillips superbly, were Everton approaching their best. This is a side beset by injuries, exhaustion and a collective slump in form, limping towards the end of the season and anxious that Portsmouth will pinch fifth place from them.

• CHELSEA VERDICT: Defensive resilience and organisation at the back proved decisive. This was testament to the continued dependability of Mourinho's system to restrict opponents. However, Chelsea were ineffectual in the final third for much of the match. It was not a performance to enhance Nicolas Anelka's case for a regular place, though he was not helped by his team-mates' wasteful crossing. The team, however, was rather overshadowed by the manager.


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