- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

Being the follow-up act to flamboyant former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho is a Herculean task. So give credit to Chelsea coach Avram Grant, often dismissively called Average Grant, who is finding it impossible to satisfy the fans who flock to London’s fashionable Kings Road to watch the most expensive team in the world play.

Mourinho dubbed himself The Special One, and indeed he was. Everything he touched turned to gold. In his three seasons at Chelsea, the Portuguese maestro won five trophies, including the first league title for the club in 50 years.

When Mourinho left in September after a bust-up with the owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Grant was on the hot seat and handed a four-year contract.

Talk about pressure. Grant was barely heard of in English soccer. Suddenly he was dealing with a locker room of superstars and the most spoiled fans in the world.

That’s not to say Grant was inexperienced. In Israel, where he has been coaching since age 18, he had won titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv. The 52-year-old also coached the Israeli national team, and despite not reaching the 2006 World Cup, the team was unbeaten in qualifying and tied France twice.

Grant met Abramovich at a Moscow restaurant in 2004 and a friendship was born.

So far, Grant’s record at Chelsea is reasonable. He got the Blues to the League Cup final in which they lost to Tottenham Hotspur. However, Grant can’t seem to come out from Mourinho’s shadow, no matter what he does. On the personality scale, comparing Grant with Mourinho is like comparing flat warm beer with champagne.

Last Saturday when Chelsea could only earn a 1-1 tie at home against tiny Wigan, the fans vilified him, chanting You don’t know what you’re doing and singing Mourinho’s name.

Grant also has received anti-Semitic death threats, which is even more outrageous considering Grant’s 80-year-old father was a Holocaust survivor who saw his parents and five siblings die in Siberia.

The irony here is that Chelsea is still alive in the Premier League title race and plays in the semifinals of the Champions League on Tuesday against Liverpool.

On Thursday Chelsea beat Everton on the road to put the club just two points behind Manchester United in the chase for the title. The two teams play each other next week and a win for Chelsea, combined with a major slip-up by United, could give Chelsea the top prize.

That looks unlikely. But even if Grant brought the Champions League trophy home to Chelsea for the first time in the history of the team something Mourinho failed to do with the club it still might not be enough to satisfy the fans.

Grant, a fanatic of the NBA who and has studied the training methods of the Chicago Bulls, has been attacked for his tactics and his player lineups. Fans say his brand of soccer is boring.

For the time being Abramovich is backing Grant. His relationship with Grant is more complex than it was with Mourinho. They are compatriots, connected by language, religion, a love for soccer and even a history of suffering. Abramovich, an orphan whose grandparents were exiled to Siberia, may take the criticism of his hand-picked man more personally. If the Russian, who already has spent more than $1.1 billion on the team, begins to tighten the purse strings, then the Chelsea faithful really will have something to complain about.

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