I’m not much of an art historian, but had Michelangelo been sacked from the Sistine Chapel gig for being a bit of a prima donna and generally annoying the Catholic hierarchy, I suspect the incumbent Pope wouldn’t have called in Luigi’s Painters and Decorators and asked them to whack a dollop or two of emulsion into the gaps.
“Don’t you worry, Popey old son – my boy Luigi Jr. will sort it. He’s a bit like Botticelli, but handier with a Black and Decker. We’ll have a spot of panelling over those frescos, drop of magnolia to cover the heavenly choir of cherubs, lovely job…”
I suspect you probably know where I’m going with this cheap line in faux-satire. But I have to find some humour in the current situation down at the Bridge as I’d be crying if I couldn’t.
The reaction to losing a cup final, especially to a team we have generally dominated for two decades, is always likely to be based upon raw emotion rather than rational thought. Some days later, I still can’t feel anything but anger at the manner in which we were defeated by a team who weren’t even particularly good, just better organised by a good coach.
Have you ever seen a more clueless display from any team in a major final, let alone Chelsea?
As ever, if performances and results are unsatisfactory, it is the manager who will be under scrutiny. Avram Grant started well at Chelsea; whilst following Jose Mourinho was always likely to be difficult, the Israeli was diplomatic with the media and put together an excellent run of victories with a depleted squad which confounded his critics. He talked a good game, was disarmingly self-deprecating and the antithesis of his predecessor.
It should be noted that great sides don’t simply vanish when their mentors leave them; this is not to use the lazy argument that it is Mourinho’s team when it wins and Grant’s when it loses, far from it. The mentality of a group of proven winners does not change instantly; Jimmy Armfield took Leeds United to a European Cup final which they lost, but it was essentially Don Revie’s team minus his more experienced guiding hand.
Not changing a good deal of what Mourinho built took a degree of courage on Grant’s part. Building upon solid foundations rather than making dramatic changes can reap rewards for a new manager following a successful manager. The AC Milan side that destroyed Johann Cruyff’s exceptional Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final was managed by Fabio Capello, but in terms of tactical approach and a number of key personnel, they were still broadly Arrigo Sacchi’s team fine-tuned by the current England boss.
So are we simply a ‘team in transition’? Maybe, but use of this hackneyed phrase is often the domain of those seeking excuses for poor form. The fear is that the transition under a relatively inexperienced manager like Grant who has been found wanting when the spotlight falls upon him could be slow, painful and probably expensive. The quick fix would be to indulge Grant in the transfer market this summer, but if he is unable to coax decent performances out of the current squad when it matters, it is hard to see what good throwing more money at him will do.
Despite Grant’s protestations to the contrary, the football this season has generally been less than inspiring, but the performances against Liverpool, Olympiakos and Spurs were truly alarming. With the benefit of an almost complete squad to choose from, Grant looks at a loss as to how to deploy the riches at his disposal and unable to influence a tight game by means of substitution or tactical change. The team spirit, ability to retain and pass the ball, bold tactical changes and the sheer will to win have all but vanished.
Save for a few minutes at the end of extra time on Sunday, the number of shots Chelsea had on target in these fixtures can almost be counted upon one hand. As for the final, failing to offer any kind of genuine test to an unfamiliar back four (two new players, one back from injury and one played out of position) would be unforgivable for Derby, but for a club still in the hunt for three trophies, it is both inexcusable and woeful.
Significant defeats in the Roman era have often spelt the beginning of the end for the resident of the managerial hot seat. Claudio Ranieri’s “Nurse, the screens!” moment in the Champions League semi-final against Monaco; Mourinho’s second capitulation to Liverpool at the same stage of the competition last season. Both were deeply unimpressive performances that apparently convinced the owner change was needed.
For the sake of the stability of the club and the manager himself, Grant should not be subjected to the type of insidious whispering campaigns that undermined both Ranieri and Mourinho. He has also been on the receiving end of some vile personal abuse, which I sincerely hope does not escalate should our form deteriorate further.
Abramovich may have come to dislike the manager who delivered the silverware he craved (or at least some of it), but allowing the legacy he left behind to be squandered simply to prove his own judgement right would be truly unforgivable. There are too many well-funded, hungry teams around us to allow the club to slip into any sort of malaise that may jeopardize our position in the top four.
After the game on Sunday, a friend who has supported Chelsea for many years recalled the fall from grace and disintegration of the great 1970 FA Cup winning side after the 1972 League Cup final defeat to Stoke. To suggest that the same fate could befall the current team after a similar defeat to Spurs may be overly pessimistic, but it is a cautionary tale worth remembering against a backdrop of recent successes.
The results of the next three games could define our season, but will certainly tell us more of the mental and physical state of the team and whether recent form was simply a blip. On evidence available today, to my mind Grant clearly lacks the experience at the very highest level and is therefore not the right man to manage Chelsea Football Club. The overwhelming majority of Chelsea fans, (some ninety million of us if the spin is to be believed), can’t all be wrong.