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England's forgotten team has just joined the race


Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just a few months ago, the race for the Premiership title was being run by two horses, Arsenal and Manchester United.

However, as we enter the stretch run, a third horse has emerged and is charging hard toward the finish.

That horse is Chelsea, a team that has finished in the top two each of the last four years, but was somehow overlooked and left for dead back in January.

Sunday's 2-1 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge has moved the Blues past the Gunners and into second place, and they are poised to run down league-leaders Manchester United, which owns a five-point edge on Chelsea.

The turning point in this entire title chase may have come in the final 20 minutes of Sunday's game, with Chelsea manager Avram Grant making two unpopular changes that helped to spark his team's win.

Manager Avram Grant has Chelsea charging toward the top of the Premiership.
Arsenal's Bacary Sagna had put his team in front with 30 minutes to play, and Grant saw his team's title hopes going up in smoke.

He then took a chance and brought on Nicolas Anelka and Juliano Belletti in favor of Claude Makelele and Michael Ballack. This was very unpopular among the Stamford Bridge supporters, who reacted to the move by chanting the name of Grant's predecessor, Jose Mourinho.

The charismatic Mourinho was a beloved figure at Stamford Bridge, leading Chelsea to back-to-back titles and making the club one of the most dominant in Europe.

Mourinho is pretty much the polar opposite of Grant, who succeeded the Portuguese manager in September. Mourinho is outspoken and cocky, but he is also known as a master tactician, a title that Grant has yet to capture.

While it is clear that Grant has not been fully embraced by the Chelsea faithful, he likely gained a measure of respect when his team scored two goals in 12 minutes following the changes, dramatically switching the mood around the stadium.

"I don't think there is any manager that thinks it will succeed all the time," Grant said of his changes, "but today it succeeded and I am happy."

Grant will never be confused with Mourinho when it comes to his post-match comments, but his record is starting to look a little like the "Special One's" having lost just two games in 25 league contests.

Following Mourinho's sudden departure at the end of September, and the club's subsequent 2-0 loss at Old Trafford to United in Grant's first game as manager, many gave Chelsea little chance of making a serious run at the title.

The Blues fell behind both Arsenal and Manchester United and there were not many observers who felt that the scowling Israeli manager would be the man to lead them back, but Grant did not lose faith and felt that his club was capable of getting back to where it needed to be.

"We always need to chase after Arsenal and Manchester United, we were many points behind and I talked to the players," Grant said. "What we wanted was to [have] the opportunity to come to Stamford Bridge with a game we can win, and if we win we are ahead of them."

Chelsea did just that on Sunday by knocking off Arsenal and moving a point ahead of the Gunners. Now they must focus on catching United, a task that will become easier with striker Didier Drogba in top form.

Drogba has not been the dominant force up top that he was over the last two seasons, when he scored a combined 32 goals. However, he did show flashes of that brilliance on Sunday, scoring both of his team's goals and nearly adding a third at the end.

"We got in their faces a little bit and when Didier plays as well as that you have got to use him," Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole said, "so we just kept knocking the ball up to his chest and joining him from there. We are delighted with the win."

Grant's job has been rumored to be in jeopardy on numerous occasions this season, including as recently as a few weeks ago when Chelsea was bounced from the FA Cup by lowly Barnsley.

However, Grant has remained in the saddle and now has his club believing that it can run down anybody at the end of the season.

"Of course we still think we can do it but we have to hope that Manchester United drop points and we win all of our games, but we will keep going, we are on a good run," said Cole.

As the horses enter the final stretch, Arsenal is doing its best Barbaro impression and limping towards the finish, having gone winless in its last five Premiership matches.

Chelsea has come on strong, overtaken Arsenal, and is now hoping to close on United.

The Red Devils must still visit Stamford Bridge at the end of April, and with the way things are going, it looks like we had better get ready for a photo finish.



Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com


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