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Times

Roman Abramovich denies interfering with Chelsea team affairs

It may surprise Avram Grant, but Roman Abramovich has told a court that he keeps his nose out of running Chelsea. The Russian billionaire has appeared to have plenty of input at Stamford Bridge since he bought the club in 2003, but in legal papers filed as part of his “clash of the oligarchs” court battle with Boris Berezovsky, he claims that he is not involved in the day-to-day running of the club.

The £2billion case at the Commercial Court in London centres on Berezovsky's claim that he was forced to surrender oil and aluminium assets. Abramovich has taken exception to Berezovsky's legal documents, which claim that he “owns and directs the management of Chelsea Football Club”. Abramovich's defence states: “It is admitted that the defendant owns Chelsea Football Club, but it is denied [in so far as relevant or necessary] that he directs the management of that club.”

José Mourinho, who styled himself the “Special One”, left Chelsea under a cloud at the start of last season after Abramovich lost faith in the Portuguese manager. Rows over his reluctance to play Andriy Shevchenko, the owner's friend and one of his footballing heroes, and the lack of money for transfers were blamed. Abramovich was also rumoured to be disillusioned with the dour, safety-first style of football that the team played under Mourinho.

Grant was sacked at the end of last season, despite leading the club to within one missed penalty kick of the Champions League trophy. Abramovich was reported to have been entering “team areas” such as the dressing-room and training ground last season and was even rumoured to have suggested formation changes.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, the new manager who started work this week, is said to have insisted that Abramovich keeps out of transfers and the dressing-room, but, according to Russian newspaper reports on Wednesday, Abramovich has set his heart on signing at least one Russia player this summer. Andriy Arshavin heads a list of players including Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Akinfeev and Roman Pavlyuchenko, whom Abramovich would like to see at Stamford Bridge next season.

Arshavin would prefer to join Barcelona, but Chelsea are in pole position after offering Zenit St Petersburg £14million, although it is unclear how the playmaker would fit into the same team as Deco, the Portugal midfield player, who was signed for £8million from Barcelona on Monday. Zenit are hoping to start a bidding war between Chelsea and Barcelona for Arshavin and are holding out for £24million, a sum that neither club is willing to pay for the 27-year-old.

“It's too early to say it's a done deal,” a source close to Arshavin said. “There's a big difference between what Zenit want and what clubs have offered. I expect his future to be sorted out next week.”

Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 from Ken Bates in a £140million deal and has invested £450million since. Chelsea have won the domestic league title and Carling Cup twice and the FA Cup once under Abramovich, but had to settle for runners-up in the Champions League, Barclays Premier League and Carling Cup last season.

Abramovich has positioned his most trusted aides in Stamford Bridge. Bruce Buck, the American lawyer who advised him on Sibneft affairs when he owned the oil company, was made chairman in 2004. Eugene Tenenbaum, once a corporate finance chief at Sibneft, sits on the Chelsea board.

Last September, after the embarrassing 1-1 home draw with Rosenborg in the Champions League group stage, it was reported that Abramovich had lectured Michael Essien, the Ghana midfield player, on tactics, with Shevchenko acting as an interpreter.

Those who have left Stamford Bridge say otherwise, consistently denying in public that the owner interferes in on-pitch matters. “Roman is very intelligent,” Mourinho said. “He would never do this.”

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