While England's Carling Cup is not considered a major trophy for top Premier League teams, tonight's match with Hull City is a must win for Chelsea's Avraham Grant. He can hardly afford an embarrassing lost to a team mired in 18th place in the second division.
Usually, the top flight teams pay minimal attention to this cup, seeing it as a bother and an injury risk having to travel to some god foresaken pitch of a lower division team seeking headlines for slaying its famous opponent. Consequently, they usually field younger players and rest their stars.
The last time an English team came away from Stamford Bridge with a win was two years ago, when Charlton Athletic won on penalties. Technically, it did not upset coach Jose Mourinho's perfect home record against English clubs because a game going to penalty kicks is officially a tie. When Chelsea drew last year with Wycombe Wanderers, hardly anyone blinked an eye.
But Grant won't be cut the breaks his predecessor enjoyed in the Carling Cup. The line up will be examined with a magnifying glass, and every substitution will be questioned whether the decision was based on professional considerations or the player's relation to club owner Roman Abramovich.
A loss to Hull would deepen the crisis at Chelsea, and the commentators expect television viewership tonight to be out of proportion to the importance of the game as the Grant drama continues.
"We're going for victory, and we'll try to exploit the situation at Chelsea," said Hull coach Phil Brown. "We have depth on the squad, and we'll approach the game positively, and we'll try to hurt them as much as possible." Players for the underdog include Jay-Jay Okocha and Nick Barmby.
In contrast, Chelsea lacks Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack as well as defenders Wayne Bridge and Ricardo Carvalho, who are injured. In addition, John Obi Mikel is out on suspension. "I didn't arrive at an ideal time," the coach told reporters yesterday. "There's no time for preparations, and we've gone three games without a win. I don't know how much time I have, but I am trying to do my job."
Grant used his press conference yesterday to deny reports about his players being dissatisfied with him. "The atmosphere is better than I expected. When you have 25 players there will always be one or two who are unhappy, though I haven't seen anyone like that. I am a very positive person, but it's impossible for everyone to be satisfied."
Focusing on the task at hand, he said, "That's soccer, and we need to move ahead quickly." He also recalled, "I was in London when Arsene Wagner was appointed 11 years ago, and I remember the reception - it seems to be an English tradition for a new foreign coach."
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