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May 18, 2008

Ballack hands backing to Grant

It is hard to quantify just what Avram Grant has achieved as Chelsea manager.

The mere fact that coach hand picked by Stamford Bridge Tsar Roman Abramovich to replace Jose Mourinho last September is preparing to lead Chelsea into the first Champions League final against Manchester United suggests more than a little credit should be flowing in his direction, yet instead negativity continues to wash over him relentlessly.

After taking over a side that had just failed to beat the minnows of Rosenborg on home soil, Grant's achievements in mounting a sterling challenge for the Premier League title and then taking the club to the brink of the ultimate prize in Europe seem to be constantly dismissed by the majority who still believe he is out of his depth at the top level of European football.

Apparently destined to be cast as a permanent figure of ridicule, he spent much of Chelsea's Champions League press day last Wednesday answering questions about his future. Much to his frustration, and that of twitchy Chelsea Director of Communications Simon Greenberg, Grant was a punch bag for the world's media who refuse to believe this quiet man is anything other than Abramovich's stooge.

A glowing endorsement from the Chelsea owner would be enough to quell the belief that Grant is preparing for his final game as Chelsea manager on Wednesday night in Moscow, but such a message doesn't seem imminent from the Russian billionaire whose public pronouncements are as occasional as those of Osama Bin Laden.

It means the players Grant works with are left to offer their own defence of the most maligned Champions League final boss of all-time, yet they struggle to answer the questions the media inevitably ask about this mysterious Israeli whose nervous performances at press briefings inspire little confidence.

Take Michael Ballack. Here is a man who has seen it all in the game after playing at the highest level for over a decade and while his words in support for Grant are designed to be warm, his suggestion that the Israeli has done little to change the set-up he inherited from Mourinho says much.

'You don't need too much influence from the coach when you have a dressing room as experienced as the one we have at Chelsea just now,' states the German international, clearly not realising his words suggest Grant has had little influence on a squad packed with high-profile star names.

'When I was a young man learning my trade at Bayern Leverkusen, Christoph Daum was the coach and I learned so much from him. He would take you aside and talk to you when the time was right. I needed it at the time. At Chelsea, we have players who have all been in these pressure situations so many times now and we know what to do.

'The job of the coach is merely to make a tactical change sometimes and to make sure we have the conditions we need to succeed and our coach can do that for us. Avram Grant is a nice man and I'm sure will be at Chelsea next season. We are in a Champions League final and pushed Manchester United very close at the top of the Premier League. There is no need to change the manager when a team are achieving things like this.'

The general view is that Ballack and Mourinho didn't see eye to eye in the final few months of their working relationship at Chelsea. Indeed, when 'The Special One' left the German superstar out of his Champions League squad at the start of the season, the perception was that his Stamford Bridge career was all but over.

Reports that Ballack underwent ankle surgery in Germany without Mourinho's permission last May were only loosely denied by the Chelsea boss and at that point, few could have imagined his season would end on such a remarkable high, but he tries to put that much-publicised controversy to bed once and for all.

Indeed, his glowing praise of Mourinho suggests Ballack had few gripes with the much lamented Chelsea boss whose shadow has been looming over everything Grant has tried to achieve in his first season as a coach of a major club.

'Our manager is a very different person to Jose Mourinho and he cannot change just to fit in with what people want,' continues Ballack. 'The fans loved Mourinho and they were very sad when he left. Obviously, the guy who follows was in a tough position.

'Mourinho brought me to Chelsea and I have a lot of admiration for him as a coach. Even though people always suspected there was a problem between us, I can say he was a good man to work with.

'The same is true with Avram Grant. You cannot compare the two because they are so different. Avram talks to the players in a much quieter manner and is very clear in his ideas. We all have respect for him, don't worry about that.

'I was injured at the start of the season and never had any problem when I was not in the Champions League squad. Everyone else seemed to panic when my name was not on the list, but it was never a problem for me. It was a tough time back then because I hate sitting on the sidelines, but all the hard work getting back to full fitness has paid off because the last six months have been my best at Chelsea.'

Finding his feet alongside Frank Lampard in a powerful Chelsea midfield, Ballack's big-game temperament has been vital for the progress Grant has made in his tenure as Blues boss and now the highly-paid Germany captain is dreaming of finishing what has been a confused season personally and for his club in the grand manner.

'We have the chance to finish the season with the ultimate success,' he adds. 'We are faced a Champions League Final where there is no favourite. It's a very exciting time for everyone at the club.

'I have been in this position before, but you cannot compare the Leverkusen team I reached the Final with in 2002 with Chelsea six years on. We have so much more experience at this club and we are ready to win the Champions League right now. At Leverkusen, it was amazing just to be in the Final, but this is different.

'Manchester United are a top side, so we know this will be a massive test for us, but our form in the last few months is good enough to give us real belief going to Moscow. When you have as much confidence and the knowledge as we have in this Chelsea squad, you don't fear any challenge.'

The absence of a track record at the top level is a major flaw in Grant's make-up and while he will be hoping victory over Manchester United will finally gives him the credibility he craves, such a scenario still seems a distant dream. In an era when style counts just as much as substance, you are fighting a losing battle when your personality is as dour as the team you send into battle each week.

Not being Jose Mourinho is a problem Avram Grant will never overcome.


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