Sport Soccer

Sunday 17 December 2017

Grant promising entertainment, but for now a smell of team spirit would do

Middlesbrough 0
Chelsea 1

Michael Walker

Valencia away: won. Bolton away: won. Middlesbrough away: won. Consider those three fixtures after Avram Grant had his first at Stamford Bridge, a 0-0 draw against Fulham, and consider the state both he and Chelsea would be in if all three had gone the other way. Or two of them. Or even one.

So politically delicate and volatile is the atmosphere Grant was pitched into at Chelsea that for him to have emerged from six fixtures in total -- five of which have been on the road -- intact and even showing signs of stability, is a statement about his personal stickability. Only one has been lost, the first at Manchester United.

Chelsea now face Schalke in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night and the mood, the reception and the result will also reveal much about where the club and Grant are one month after Jose Mourinho's departure.

Bearing in mind under 25,000 turned up for the Rosenborg game, the attendance will be worth noting, too.

It is much too soon to say that a corner has been turned. Didier Drogba was not the only player to talk during the international break, so did Florent Malouda, and his opinion is: "We cannot say the club is back on track and not in crisis. Honestly, right now we can't pretend we can win the Premier League. Even if we won in Valencia and Bolton, we are not dominating and we didn't really control the game."

That does not smell like team spirit. But as each game goes by, as each week does, the relentlessness of football at Chelsea's level means that the focus on the past should fade, even one orchestrated by a character like Mourinho.

Nothing helps the present quite like victories of course. Defeat here, where Chelsea had lost on their previous two visits, and the body language of Drogba and others would have been deconstructed.

Instead the sometimes want-away striker scored in the eighth minute and led the line throughout with endeavour and skill.

According to Petr Cech, Drogba has rationalised his comments to his teammates and they appear to have accepted his version.

"Of course we are together as a team," Cech said. "He explained himself which he has a right to do.

"Everyone has a right to do that. As long as he plays 100pc for the team, and he's been doing that for years, doing it every time, then that's fine.

"Didier's best answer was today on the pitch. He gave absolutely 100pc for us. He played an important game for us and found a crucial goal. What more can you say than that?"

Grant used the word "entertainment" when outlining an overall philosophy but this performance was more about Chelsea's competence, Drogba's toughness and Middlesbrough's diffidence than a sudden switch to Keeganism at the Bridge. How Grant, Roman Abramovich and Henk ten Cate approach the visit of Manchester City on Saturday will be instructive: City have more points, scored more and conceded less.

Here, there was admittedly an old-fashioned blockbuster of a second goal from Alex but the suspension of general judgement about Chelsea is also particular because of Boro's repressed display.

Gareth Southgate has a bedrock of goodwill on Teesside but it will be eroded by efforts like this -- why pick Tuncay Sanli ahead of Lee Cattermole? But there were no raucous jeers at the end. Not even for Drogba, who kissed his shirt a few days after disowning it.

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