Bolton’s ‘big mistake’

Avram Grant’s first three points as Chelsea manager came courtesy of a rare piece of opportunism from Salomon Kalou and the team’s first league goal in seven hours and 40 minutes of action, writes Daniel Taylor.

Avram Grant had his first league win and even if Chelsea’s fans still refuse to sing his name (it may be well into 2008, if at all, before that moment arrives) it was noticeable that the visiting fans were not as vocal in their continued support of Jose Mourinho. Winning always tends to placate unhappy supporters and, after a workmanlike 1-0 victory reminiscent of the old days, Grant is entitled to claim an air of normality is returning — if, that is, life is e ver normal at Chelsea.

His first three points as Chelsea manager came courtesy of a rare piece of opportunism from Salomon Kalou and the team’s first league goal in seven hours and 40 minutes of action. Or to put it another way, the first since Frank Lampard slashed in the winner against Portsmouth on August 25.

September 2007 will be remembered as fondly as a burst appendix to the average Chelsea fan, but they have begun October encouragingly and Grant has shown, if nothing else, that by leaving out the Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko from a side that had Didier Drogba suspended the Israeli manager is far from merely a yes-man for the club owner, Roman Abramovich.

Shevchenko was not only overlooked for the starting line-up but, when Kalou went off at half-time with a sore hamstring, Grant preferred to bring on Claudio Pizarro and when Shevchenko did finally come on, 17 minutes from the end, it was on the left of midfield, where he contributed little more than the winning of a couple of throw-ins.

A cameo role keeping tabs on Joey O’Brien was not what the former European Footballer of the Year must have had in mind when he left Milan for London, but Grant was just as unapologetic as Mourinho used to be. “I need to make decisions for the good of Chelsea,” he said.

It was a perfectly plausible explanation, particularly when analysed in conjunction with Sammy Lee’s deeply unimpressive justification for leaving out not only his captain, Kevin Nolan, but also Gary Speed, the man he made his first-team coach after becoming manager at the end of last season.

Neither player even made the bench amid simmering tensions behind the scenes but Lee, whose tenure has been badly affected by leaks from the dressing-room, was in no mood to divulge his reasons.

“I picked the team I wanted,” he said nervously, a gerbil in headlights, “and you don’t ask me why I pick them when they are in the team.”

Nobody was fooled and it was an unsatisfactory way to end what was otherwise an impressive effort from the Premier League’s second-from-bottom club. Bolton were strong in the tackle, ruggedly committed and, given that it is widely known Lee’s methods have caused resentment in the dressing room, it was certainly not evident from the way the side, minus two of their more influential players, set about their opponents.

At times, too, they produced some slick football, with El Hadji-Diouf and Kevin Davies breaking in from the flanks, Ivan Campo instrumental in midfield and the 20-year-old Danny Guthrie, on loan from Liverpool, impressive on his league debut.

They may have taken only five points all season but Bolton had two sustained periods, at the start of either half, when Chelsea’s defence came close to buckling under the pressure and there were three occasions before Kalou scored his first league goal since April that the visitors were indebted to Petr Cech’s goalkeeping — the Czech Republic international keeping out Davies and Campo and diving at the feet of Nicolas Anelka after the striker had accelerated into the penalty area and twisted away from the Chelsea captain, John Terry.

Terry, incidentally, spent a large proportion of the match complaining to the referee Alan Wiley and it is becoming an irritating feature of the England captain’s persona. Wiley ended up booking five Bolton players compared to one for Chelsea, and Steve Sidwell was fortunate to get away with a handball inside his own penalty area. Yet the principal reason for Bolton’s defeat was not because of bad refereeing but the atrocious mix-up that preceded Kalou’s goal.

Jussi Jaaskelainen, Bolton’s goalkeeper, will wince when he sees the replays, as will the centre-half Abdoulaye Meite, for it was their indecision in dealing with a bouncing ball that allowed Kalou to steal in, nick the ball away and finish with an angled shot.

The goal originated from a long Cech goal-kick, headed back towards his own penalty area by Gavin McCann, and Lee spoke in sombre tones about his team’s “one big mistake”.

Bolton’s under-pressure manager could otherwise reflect on an admirable performance but Chelsea, with the England midfielder Lampard back, edged the game regardless of Sidwell’s good fortune and, on the back of the Champions League victory in Valencia, Grant wore a Mourinho-esque look of satisfaction. A typical Makelele performance, the Frenchman mopping up in front of defence, and providing a safeguard for the England midfielder Frank Lampard and Steve Sidwell to supplement the visitors’ attack.

THE RESULTS October 7:

October 6: Aston Villa 1 (Gardner 24) bt West Ham 0. Half-time: 1-0; Manchester United 4 (Tevez 54, Ronaldo 59 & 76, Rooney 82) bt Wigan 0. Half-time: 0-0.

October 1: Tottenham 4 (Berbatov 20, Chimbonda 69, Keane pen-82, Kaboul 90) drew with Aston Villa 4 (Laursen 22 & 33, Agbonlahor 40, Gardner 59). Half-time: 1-3.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 * * * Grant is proving to be his own man

Avram Grant needed to placate an angry Andriy Shevchenko in the dressing room at the Mestalla Stadium after Chelsea’s Champions League win over Valencia.

Grant is determined to put his stamp on the team and dressing room. As he succeeds Jose Mourinho, with Roman Abramovich looking down from above, that is not easy. Yet on one thorny issue, Grant is proving to be his own man.

At Bolton, with Didier Drogba suspended, Grant had the opportunity to restore Shevchenko and potentially score points with Abramovich, who did more than anybody to oil the wheels of the striker’s £30m transfer from Milan last year.

Instead, Grant started with Salomon Kalou as a lone spearhead and the Ivorian troubled Bolton before the interval with his tireless running, scoring Chelsea’s goal in a 1-0 win.

Grant twisted the knife further into Shevchenko at half-time by replacing Kalou, who had a hamstring strain, with Claudio Pizarro. Shevchenko’s place in the attacking pecking order appeared to be confirmed.

When the Ukrainian came on in the 73rd minute, he was asked to fill Florent Malouda’s berth on the left flank. It is safe to say he did not enjoy himself and that when he arrived from Milan he would hardly have envisaged being ordered to occupy Bolton’s Joey O’Brien. “They pay me to be in charge; I have to be in charge and make the decisions,” Grant said.

“When I got this job nobody said I had to pick the friends of Peter Kenyon or anyone else at the club. Every player has good times and bad times and I’m sure Sheva will be a great player for us. But I need to make decisions for the good of Chelsea.”

In January Abramovich had wanted to bring Grant to Chelsea as a personal coach to Shevchenko after the owner grew tired of the striker’s toils under Mourinho. Grant eventually joined as the director of football last summer before becoming manager.

Shevchenko did not shed any tears when Mourinho departed but, to his chagrin, his situation now seems even worse.

David Hytner/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007