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Martin Samuel on Big Phil


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June 12, 2008

Luiz Felipe Scolari finally lifts Chelsea into world premier league

Martin Samuel, Chief Football Correspondent

There has been something uncommonly relaxed about Chelsea these past few days. Amid the incessant speculation, the endless lists of names in the frame, rumours of clandestine meetings in Milan and summer trips abroad with more of a whiff of subterfuge than the smell of coconut oil, the men in charge of a club that would be big have kept their counsel. Now we know why.

They had him. They had the guy. They had landed the big one. Chelsea succeeded where the FA failed two years ago; they had impressed when nine months ago they merely confused. They had got Luiz Felipe Scolari, World Cup winner, a man at the top of his profession. In the bag, on the hook, done and dusted.

Chelsea would not confirm when the deal was completed, but the suggestion is at least a week ago and probably before the European Championship finals began.

There were suggestions last night that Chelsea had jumped the gun and made the announcement without asking Scolaris permission, causing embarrassment in his adopted Portugal, after a win that ensured his team progressed to the last eight of the tournament, but this was strongly denied in London. It would make no sense to do that, anyway. Not having come this far.

The club have hardly covered themselves in glory or presented a coherent strategy over the past year, but this one feels right. It takes a huge personality to confront the pressure and demands of the regime at Stamford Bridge, to balance the yearning for a beautiful game with the insistence that it must also be a winning one, and if any manager has the wit to pull it off, it is Scolari.

Jos Mourinho was a man who responded to the intensity of his situation and thrived on it, for two years at least, while Avram Grant was not. Scolari has more of Mourinho in him than he does Grant, tempered by something that is going to be invaluable in the coming years: experience. At the age of 59, he has been around the block long enough to have kept his passion, like Sir Alex Ferguson, but not his impetuosity.

Chelsea are not getting the man who raised his hands to journalists or was regarded in his early days in Brazil as a brute, always ready for confrontation. In the main, Scolari is wiser (although he was fined about £10,000 for throwing a punch at a Serbia opponent during a European Championship qualifier last year, such transgressions are increasingly rare). His teams are gentler, too. Grmio, the club at which he made his name, became champions of South America with a fierce, uncompromising style.

Scolari, who hails from the south, Rio Grande do Sul, was called The Argentinian as a result, which in Brazil is about as big as an insult gets. This reputation was put to rest in 2002, when he won the World Cup with a joyous Brazil team that found room for the three Rs: Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. If there is a criticism of his present Portugal team it is that they lack a midfield destroyer. One may say that he has changed.

For Chelsea, this is a grand coup. Never has one appointment contrasted so greatly with its antecedent. When Grant replaced Mourinho in September, the decision was mystifying. Little-known, unheralded, uncomfortable from the start, he was identified only as a friend of Roman Abramovich, the owner, and distrusted accordingly. Scolari is the polar opposite. From no track record to the ultimate track record: from a dour persona to a great room-filler; from a pal of the boss to a step into the unknown.

Who knows how Scolari will respond to the challenge of Premier League football, of a transfer budget that will be beyond any previous experience, of a squad of players that is very much in flux. With Grant, Abramovich probably knew what he was getting. With Scolari, who does?

The Brazilians thought that they knew him six years ago when he was widely predicted to turn out a World Cup team of solid pragmatism. Instead he grew to be the great romantic. Chelsea were keen to point out last night that this manager ticked all the boxes: a world-class CV, the ability to deliver outstanding, entertaining football and a reputation for getting the best out of top players. Hidden in that statement may also be a coded message that they got it wrong the previous time; not that anyone at the club will admit it.

Maybe Grant was always intended to be the caretaker, although the terms of his contract make him a very expensive one; maybe, deep down, the executives at Chelsea always knew that it was going to take a man of strong character and experience to take Mourinhos work on; maybe they just had to let the owner get his faith in a friend out of his system.

Whatever the reason for the change in direction, it is an aberration that has been corrected. Big clubs need a big presence on the touchline and the training field and Grant was not that. The players say he was the most nervous man in the dressing-room before the Champions League final against Manchester United last month and he lacked the authority to deal with the most senior figures in the team. Scolari will never be found wanting in that way. At half-time against the Czech Republic yesterday, with the scores level, he took the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo to task over aspects of his performance. Portugal won 3-1.

As the team bus pulled away from Stade de Genve last night after the match, written on the side was the message, This coach is driven by the will to win. Above, Scolari sat proudly in his front-row seat. It is that energy, that ambition, that determination, which Chelsea believe they have signed up for next season.

Abramovich will have left Geneva a contented man and it is Scolaris job to keep him that way. Having endured a time with the worlds most football obsessed nation on his back, he may think he has seen everything, although those who have followed Chelsea this past year still think that he could be in for the odd surprise.

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