LONDON — In the ideal world the vast majority of Chelsea and Tottenham supporters would have preferred Jose Mourinho and Martin Jol to have remained their club’s manager.
Both left earlier this season by mutual consent and their replacements, Avram Grant and Juande Ramos, did not exactly have the champagne corks popping in west and north London.
Next month, on Feb. 24, Chelsea plays Tottenham in the League Cup final, when either Grant or Ramos will win his first trophy in English football.
The boards of the two clubs can justifiably claim that in going against public opinion the ends have justified their means.
Chelsea is no stranger to the League Cup final, of course, and Mourinho always took the least important competition in English football seriously. It was the first trophy the Portuguese won as Chelsea manager and the 2008 final represents Chelsea’s third appearance in the last four years.
Before last Wednesday’s semifinal, second leg 1-0 win at Everton, Grant had said that Chelsea was not particularly bothered by the League Cup, which had a whiff of getting your excuses in first if things go wrong.
After securing their place in the final Grant said: “I cannot remember a single game that I have been involved in that I do not want to win.”
A new manager for Chelsea but the same style and end product. Grant tries to convince us that Chelsea is more attacking and exciting under his management, though neutrals can find little evidence to back up his claims.
It remains a dogged, well-organized, ultra-competitive, stubborn team with players capable of individual moments of brilliance such as Joe Cole’s winning goal at Everton. Too often it also remains as entertaining as paint, drying yet at the same time credit must be given for its achievements if not its methods.
Two defeats and 21 wins in Grant’s 28 games in charge is a record Mourinho would be proud of.
Chelsea has kept nine clean sheets in the last 11 games and is hanging on to the shirt-tails of Manchester United and Arsenal at the top of the Premier League.
This despite the fact its first-choice central defensive partnership of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho have played together only twice this season because of injuries, leading goal scorers Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard have, for various reasons, been missing for 10 weeks and Petr Cech, probably the best goalkeeper in Europe, for almost two months.
Most successors would be low key in comparison to Mourinho, and Grant knows his somewhat dour personality will never earn him the place in the hearts of Chelsea fans that the Portuguese Special One still holds.
All the Israeli Ordinary One can do it to keep on winning and in this respect he has much in common with his predecessor.
Ramos is equally less flamboyant than Jol, who was charismatic without the jagged edge of Mourinho. The 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal (admittedly not a full-strength Arsenal) in the semifinal, second-leg was Spurs’ first victory over their rivals in 22 attempts, so at least Ramos has got that particular statistical monkey off the club’s back.
The former Sevilla coach is not yet confident enough to speak in English to the media, but he is obviously getting through to his players. Tottenham has moved up to 11th in the Premier League, but it is 13 points behind sixth-place Aston Villa, so the League Cup represents its best chance of maintaining a place in the UEFA Cup.
Ramos dropped England goalkeeper Paul Robinson in favor of Radek Cerny, a difficult decision, but one that results-wise has proved to be correct.
The return to fitness of captain Ledley King has strengthened Spurs’ defense, while the strict diet and training regime imposed by Ramos has seen a loss of weight and a gain in fitness by the players.
Coincidence or not, players such as Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Jenas and Steed Malbranque are now far more consistent than pre-Ramos. However, Sunday’s FA Cup fourth-round tie at Manchester United will be a far sterner test than a weakened Arsenal at White Hart Lane, but as with Grant, a domestic final in his first season has given Ramos some breathing space.
Ramos is something of a cup specialist. He won the UEFA Cup with Sevilla in 2006 and 2007, and has led Spurs to the later rounds of this season’s competition.
Asked about his last cup defeat, Ramos said it was against Cadiz in the King’s Cup — a couple of years ago — Sevilla’s 3-0 loss to Arsenal at Emirates Stadium in this season’s Champions League obviously erased from the Spaniard’s memory bank.
Chelsea vs. Spurs at Wembley may be more intriguing than mouth-watering, and the football writers know they will not be spoon-fed in the way that Mourinho and Jol gave the media the back-page stories they crave.
Grant and Ramos are doing things their way — so far so good for both of them.
AT 5 A.M. one day this week a Sky Sports television crew filmed Tony Taggart starting his daily round as a dust man. Such is the magic of the F.A. Cup.
Taggart is a winger of Havant and Waterlooville of the Blue Square South — effectively six divisions below the Premier League in English football’s pyramid — which plays Liverpool at Anfield in the F.A. Cup fourth round Saturday. It is not so much David vs. Goliath as David’s younger brother.
Taggart is now the most famous bin man in England. There is also a school caretaker, a teacher, a builder, a van driver and a taxi driver.
The game at Anfield could be worth as much as £800,000 to the non-league club, which is 100-1 to beat Liverpool, the longest odds ever offered for an F.A. Cup tie.
The Hawks are languishing in mid-table in the Blue Square South, but manager Shaun Gale said: “It’s fantastic for a club of our level to have achieved what we have and to be going to Anfield in the last 32 of the biggest cup competition in the world.
“We are under no illusions how difficult it’s going to be, but every football match we go into we prepare the players right and we’ll be going there to give it our best shot, and not just to have a party.
“Anything is possible in football. I would never send a side out just to enjoy it. You don’t know what side Liverpool will put out. It’s the F.A. Cup and we will be going out to win like we do every game.
“If Liverpool plays fantastic and we play fantastic, then there is only one winner. But if Liverpool doesn’t play so well and we’re at the top of our game, then anything can happen.”
The Hawks’ players will enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and leave Anfield with Liverpool jerseys and the sort of memories that money cannot buy.
Christopher Davies writes about the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.