Avram Grant believes Chelsea are in pole position to reach their first Champions League final after his side escaped with a fortunate 1-1 draw in the semi-final first leg against Liverpool.
Grant has made an art-form out of hiding his emotions since succeeding Jose Mourinho in September, but there was no disguising the Chelsea’s manager’s satisfaction after John Arne Riise’s last gasp own goal cancelled out Dirk Kuyt’s opener at Anfield on Tuesday.
He fielded every question at the post-match press conference with a glint in his eye and a barely suppressed smile playing on his lips. For months Grant has been told he is out of his depth at the highest level, while facing constant speculation linking more glamorous names with his job.
But now, after a lacklustre display that reaped more reward than it deserved, the Israeli’s luck may have finally changed.
He is within 90 minutes of delivering Chelsea’s first Champions League final appearance. All his team have to do is maintain their impressive record at Stamford Bridge, where they are unbeaten for over two years, in next Wednesday’s second leg to reach May’s Moscow showpiece.
Grant expects nothing less, although he resisted the temptation to take a swipe at his critics. “I do not concern myself with what people say, I am just doing my job to get results. And I know that 1-1 away from home in Europe is good result. It is a big step now towards our goal,” he said.
“Although the draw is good for us, we know it will be tough at Stamford Bridge. It is always difficult for teams to play at Anfield with the support Liverpool’s fans create, but it can also be intimidating for teams who visit Stamford Bridge.
“We know this is a big step towards the Champions League final now, and we believe we can complete the task in the second leg.”
After two doses of Champions League semi-final heartbreak at Liverpool in the last three seasons, Chelsea were in trouble again as they fell behind in the 43rd minute.
Kuyt dispossessed Frank Lampard and Javier Mascherano miscued a shot goalwards. Ashley Cole would have cleared but for Claude Makelele’s ill-advised jump towards the ball which allowed Kuyt to poke home.
Only Petr Cech stopped Liverpool’s taking complete control after that. The Chelsea keeper had already denied Fernando Torres once before half-time and frustrated the Spanish striker again in the closing stages, as well as brilliantly tipping over Steven Gerrard’s powerful shot.
Those heroics gave Chelsea hope. Even so they couldn’t have expected much reward when Salomon Kalou swung over a cross with virtually the last kick of the game. But Riise, diving to head clear, diverted the ball into his own net to silence the Kop.
Grant insisted Chelsea’s good fortune was merited after several bad breaks this season.
“We have had a lot of goals scored against us in the last minutes and never scored any ourselves. I think we deserve it,” he said.
“There was a big mistake by us for their goal. Until then we controlled the game. In the second half we made some changes and in the end we got a good result.”
Liverpool, for so long Europe’s Cinderella team, will find it a lot harder to get to the ball this year. The Reds haven’t won at Stamford Bridge since January 2004 and are yet to score there in eight attempts under Benitez, but the Spaniard was still in defiant mood as he looked ahead to the return.
“We must now be positive and clear our minds. If we play like that at Stamford Bridge next week and take those chances, we will go through,” he said.
“We have confidence in ourselves. I am confident we can do it, I will recall the first 20 minutes of the second period when we were very much on top of Chelsea. If we can do that again at Stamford Bridge, we can still get to the final.”
While Liverpool’s European future now hangs by a slender thread, off the pitch Benitez revealed a meeting between warring Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett is on the cards.
Hicks attended the match, even joining the crowd in singing the club’s “You’ll never walk alone” anthem before kick-off, after talking with Benitez at the club’s training ground earlier on Tuesday.
“It was okay. I was talking with him. We were talking about having a meeting with the owners and everyone so it was positive. It was just to say hello and arrange the meeting,” Benitez said.
“It will be positive. After the meeting if we have something important we will say it.”
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