When Avram Grant sent his Chelsea players away for international duty last week, he must have thought he was beginning to get the troubled club back on track.
The storm of controversy generated by Jose Mourinho’s dramatic exit and Grant’s ascension as his replacement had finally dissipated after wins over Valencia and Bolton.
But, as Mourinho could tell the Israeli, life at Stamford Bridge is never simple.
In the space of three days this week Grant’s preparations for Saturday’s Premier League trip to Middlesbrough have been hit by two blows that could have serious repercussions.
First, captain John Terry aggravated a knee injury in training before England’s match against Russia. The defender had already admitted he needed surgery to cure the problem but his determination to play for his country pushed the knee too far and he could be sidelined for several weeks.
Then, while Grant was still rueing that misfortune, he would have been horrified to hear that his star striker, Didier Drogba, had revealed his determination to quit Chelsea.
Drogba believes morale amongst the squad has been badly damaged by Mourinho’s departure and the Côte d’Ivoire star, who was in tears himself when the Portuguese said his farewells, told a French football magazine that nothing could now keep him at Chelsea.
Grant must feel like he is cursed. He now has the tricky task of keeping his players united as they try to make up ground on league leaders Arsenal, who are currently seven points ahead of the Blues with a game in hand.
Chelsea won’t be able to count on Arsenal slipping up this weekend.
Arsene Wenger’s side should extend their 10-match winning run against manager-less Bolton, who visit the Emirates Stadium in turmoil after Sammy Lee’s midweek dismissal.
Wenger will be concerned by the loss of leading scorer Robin van Persie to a knee injury that could keep him out for a month, but he is relishing the chance to get his players back after the international break.
”It’s very exciting and enjoyable,” Wenger said. ”I am very happy to work with this team because every day is a pleasure.
”It’s fantastic to be able to develop these players and we can still improve. I was very impatient to get them back here after the international break and continue what we have started.”
While Arsenal have defied predictions that they would struggle to mount a title challenge, Liverpool are finding it hard to live up to the weighty pre-season expectations placed on them.
Rafa Benitez’s side were regarded as a serious threat to champions Manchester United after major investment in new players, but they are in danger of losing touch after a run of one win in four league matches.
Benitez, who hopes Spain striker Fernando Torres will be fit, believes Saturday’s Merseyside derby at Everton presents the perfect chance to get back on track.
”Winning a game like this can change everything and we are looking forward to the derby,” Benitez said.
”It’s important for us to win this game. Everton are in a good position in the league and have started the season well.
”We know it will be a tough and very physical game. We have confidence and the players know how much this match means to our supporters.”
Manchester United have no such worries as they head to Aston Villa.
A rock-solid defence kept six successive league clean sheets to help out during a barren run for United’s strikers, but the creative talents took over in a 4-0 win over Wigan.
Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground for Sir Alex Ferguson down the years and they will expect to keep that run going on Saturday. — Sapa-AFP
Saturday (2pm GMT unless stated)
Arsenal vs Bolton
Aston Villa vs Manchester Utd (4.15pm GMT)
Blackburn vs Reading
Everton vs Liverpool (11.45am GMT)
Fulham vs Derby
Manchester City vs Birmingham
Middlesbrough vs Chelsea
Wigan v Portsmouth
West Ham vs Sunderland (3pm GMT)
Newcastle vs Tottenham (7 pm GMT)