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Apr 6, 2009

Grant backing Chelsea to succeed

Avram Grant was never likely to be accepted into the glamorous world of European football's elite.

Even though the much-maligned coach came within a few coats of paint of winning the Champions League Final for Chelsea, in a penalty shoot-out against Manchester United last May, there was always a feeling that whatever he achieved would not satisfy the critics who were determined to portray him as a misfit.

In an era when sport expects its star performers to have a showbiz persona as well as an ability to succeed under intense pressure, the dour and uninspiring press briefings offered by Grant were predictably covered in a negative light.

So while the final analysis showed he finished his one season at Chelsea just two points away from the Premier League title and even closer to the club's first Champions League crown, the axe duly fell as Luiz Felipe Scolari replaced him last summer.

The subsequent failure of his colourful Brazilian successor highlighted the reality that Grant had, in fact, done a decent job at Chelsea last season; yet belated acknowledgement is of little use to the Israeli as he continues to endure a life out of football.

Ahead of yet another Champions League meeting between Chelsea and Liverpool, Grant is backing new boss Guus Hiddink to guide the Blues to another final and there is not even a tinge of bitterness in his voice as he looks ahead to the quarter-final first leg at Anfield.

"I think Chelsea can be in the Champions League Final again this year," begins Grant. "You need luck and many other things for this to become a reality, but they have the talent to do it and I know the desire is there also.

"I saw the faces of the players in the dressing room after we lost to Manchester United in the final last season. They were hurting badly and I said at the time they would come back and win the trophy. Maybe this can be their year.

"The top teams in Europe are very close on talent, so it comes down to other things at this stage of the Champions League. You need the right mental attitude and lots of experience. Chelsea have both of these qualities and this is why they have a chance." Some may have taken this opportunity to have a snipe at the characters who ended his brief, and so nearly glorious, reign at the top of European club football; yet Grant is too dignified for all that. A healthy pay off may well have softened the blow of his Chelsea exit, but it is natural for him to reflect on what might have been.

"So many people ask me if I would still be Chelsea manager now if John Terry had scored that penalty in Moscow and we will never know," says the coach who saw his captain waste the chance to secure his place in football folklore on a rain soaked night in Moscow. "I wanted to continue at Chelsea, but this is gone now and there is no point in worrying about it.

"You have to accept these decisions in life and I don't look back with any regrets. I had a great time at Chelsea and these memories will live with me, but I was very disappointed when they asked me to stop after we achieved so much.

"My wife pointed out the other day that Guus Hiddink will be a hero if he gets Chelsea to the Champions League Final and finishes second in the Premier League, but this was not enough for me to stay. She is always right, by the way!

"Still, I have nothing bad to say about Chelsea. I wish the owner Roman Abramovich and everyone at the club well, but I do have some regrets from my time at the club and this has nothing to do with the players or the owner.

"One thing that made me angry was people didn't look at the facts and refused to change their mind on me, even when things went better than expected. The media said I would fail and when I started winning, they didn't give me credit. They decided I was not be good enough and couldn't change their mind when things worked out.

"I didn't receive the team at a time when I could put my ideas in place because the season had started and the only way I could show my ability as a coach was to win games, which we did week after week.

"Coming from a small country, I understand I had much to prove, but the some people didn't want to accept I could do a good job. At the start, no one expected anything from me, but then we started winning games and everyone was surprised.

"We came from sixth place in the league and finished very close to United in the championship. This was a good achievement and maybe people see this now after the trouble Chelsea have had this season.

"Believe me, I did not enjoy success at Chelsea just because we had good players. Top class talent is no guarantee of success and we worked 24 hours a day last season.

"Hiddink will now realise he dare not lose a single game with Chelsea. Maybe the priority is the Champions League this season because they are so far behind United, but you cannot lose anything when you are Chelsea manager and this is big pressure."

In backing Chelsea to overcome the challenge of Liverpool in this season's Champions League quarter-finals, Grant believes Rafael Benitez's side have played a dangerous game in recent season by trying to peak for European fixtures.

"I'm not sure Liverpool can push a button and say now we will play better in the Champions League," he says. "Chelsea challenged for both trophies last season and we didn't change the team too much until the final few weeks of the campaign. We came very close and United managed to win both the Premier League and in Europe.

"Obviously Liverpool have a big history winning the European Cup and this is a big motivation for them. They love the Champions League, but I think their supporters want to win the Premier League as well.

"The games between the two sides are always tight, but maybe our victory last season is important. Liverpool beat Chelsea twice in the Champions League until we beat them last year so there is no psychological problem for Chelsea now."

Grant will doubtless look in on Chelsea's latest bid for European glory regretting he is no longer a part of the story, but he suspects there are a few people still at the club who lament his absence.

"I'm sure Chelsea miss me in many ways because I took the heat off everyone when I was there," he adds with a chuckle. "Before I arrived, they criticised the owner, the chief executive, the players and the medical staff if the team did not perform. The whole club got was wrong. In my time as coach, they only blamed me. I gave everyone a break."

Guus Hiddink may be one of the most celebrated coaches in the modern game, yet he needs to lift the Champions League trophy in Rome to usurp Avram Grant's achievements at Chelsea. This 'no-hoper' has set the bar very high.

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