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United Wins League, Others Face Questions

ENGLAND was two countries, divided by soccer rivalry and by strangely contrasting weather as the Premier League season ended.


Victorious in thunderous rain in northern England, Manchester United celebrated its 10th English title in 17 years. Some 320 kilometres, to the south, under a cloudless London sky on one of the hottest May days on record, Chelsea sweltered to a standstill.

United’s triumph, while Chelsea was held 1-1 by Bolton, was the final difference after a 10-month, 38-game season. Two points separated the two richest clubs on earth — and typically Chelsea’s response on Monday was to spend more money plugging a gap in its defense, buying a Congolese-born right back, Jose Bosingwa from Porto.

He would not be eligible to play in Chelsea’s — and United’s — next game. They confront one another in Moscow for the Champions League final on May 21 that demonstrates the wider domination of England’s multi national clubs.

Sorting out the vulnerable right-back spot by throwing money at it is very much Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. This summer will show whether Avram Grant, the team’s second manager this season, has done enough to convince the owner that he can take the club forward.

It is assumed that the brooding Abramovich wants more entertainment for his $1 billion investment. Grant did remarkably well to push Alex Ferguson and United to the final game and to win respect of a doubting team that he inherited from another man — the self proclaimed ‘Special One’, José Mourinho.

In England, unlike most countries, the man in charge of the team is a manager, responsible for recruiting and moulding the squad rather than just coaching it.

As a huge audience watched worldwide, Fergie was the old fireball, leaping about on the touchline, belying his 66 years and dancing with the trophy again.

The simultaneous pictures from Stamford Bridge were another story. Abramovich smiled his enigmatic smile and waved to those beneath his director’s box. Grant disappeared beneath a throng of supporters. Some shook his hand, some hugged, even kissed him.

Just a few months ago, stirred by media dislike of the Israeli and by rumours that senior players such as Didier Drogba were, and still might be, determined to desert the club for wherever, if ever, Mourinho is next employed, some in that crowd shamefully reviled Grant.

He has proved nothing if not obstinate and has demonstrated with only two league defeats in seven months that he does know what he is doing. The critics might be right to say that Grant got the job because the owner knew him and trusted him. If that is a crime, then it is one repeated in every trade.

“Don’t Go Avram Grant, I Love You” read the banner from a young fan. It was not, we are reliably told, the manager’s son or daughter, but they were there, sharing a family day out in the sunshine.

“I had to be polite for the fans,” Grant joked. “My children were near me.”

And why not? Why not introduce a more human face to Chelski, the quality most missing from Stamford Bridge since Abramovich bought the then ailing club in June 2003, and made it as much his domain as Chukotka, the remote state he governs in eastern Russia.

Chelsea is his western front, and while the Champions League in Moscow clearly has its attractions to him, it is no bad thing that he wants his club to lace its ruthless reputation with somewhat more fluid attacking brio.

Like United, like the Barcelona of two years ago, perhaps. Hey, even like Arsenal, the third best team in the English Premier League, which scored more goals than Chelsea.

Way down below this trio, the season ended in bitter tears for Derby, Birmingham and Reading, three clubs that thus sacrifice the almost obscene £50 million, or $US 97,9 million, in TV income to each of the 20 Premiership teams.

Others escape by a whisker, in the case of Fulham not even by a point but by the margin of just three goals over an entire year. Yet others, the likes of Manchester City, spend big foreign investment to finish in the middle of the pack.

City had the rarest of Mancunian achievements, beating United home and away. There are supporters who were not born when that last happened, and there is Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Thai prime minister who bought the club last year.

He hired Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. Eriksson hired virtually a whole new team in the space of three weeks. Now Shinawatra indicates his displeasure at not instantly buying a top four place by letting the world know that the man he hired on a whim he can be fired on a whim.

Eriksson is thought to be heading out, to coach again in Benfica, but he will not go lightly. He will try to secure another millionaire’s pay off, though not quite the size of the buyout when England axed him for World Cup failure in 2006.

A city in turmoil? You might say so. Its team surrendered its final game, 8-1, at Middlesbrough, a humiliation not known by Manchester City in more than 100 years.

and has been there so long that on Sunday he equaled Bobby Charlton’s club record of 758 games.-BBC Sport


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