Chelsea seek to reassert favourites credentials
Carlo Ancelotti would be the first to claim the league table counts for little in January after seeing his side drop from first to third despite winning their last league game 7-2.sports Updated: Jan 26, 2010 14:43 IST
Carlo Ancelotti would be the first to claim the league table counts for little in January after seeing his side drop from first to third despite winning their last league game 7-2.
That comprehensive thrashing of Sunderland confirmed Chelsea's standing as mid-season title favourites but since that win, both Arsenal and Manchester United have leapfrogged Ancelotti's side.
Not that the Chelsea manager is unduly worried with his side now lying two points behind United having played two games less, and level on points with Arsenal with one game in hand.
Ancelotti has remained calm throughout the campaign and could see his team return to the top if they beat Birmingham City at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal fail to match their result at Aston Villa.
Victory is far from a foregone conclusion against a Birmingham side who have emerged as the season's surprise package and are currently enjoying a 15-game unbeaten run.
However, with trips to Burnley and Hull to follow this game, this is clearly a period when Chelsea can increase the pressure on their main rivals.
"If we want to win the league, we know what is possible from these next three games," said Deco, the midfielder. "We know this is the important month.
"Of course you can say you don't decide the league now, but we can finish this period at the top of the table and that will be important for us."
Ancelotti has never doubted his team's abilities and illustrated that confidence by insisting he has no interest in trading in the January transfer market.
And his claim that Chelsea had turned the corner following a home victory over Fulham in late December has since been vindicated by impressive FA Cup victories over Watford and Preston North End either side of the Sunderland win.
That confidence is clearly working it's way through to the players with young striker Daniel Sturridge - one of the beneficiaries of Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou's absence on international duty - reflecting that belief.
"Everybody is going to be fearing us and we don't fear anybody," Sturridge said. "There is no rush to score, we can score in any minute. As long as we score, the defence will always keep it tight at the back."
Drogba and Kalou are expected to return shortly before the Birmingham game following Ivory Coast's unexpectedly early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations at the quarter-final stage, although it will come too late for them to feature. They will be back in contention for the weekend trip to face Burnley.
That means Nicolas Anelka will once again be cast as senior striker and having produced two outstanding displays against Sunderland and Preston, he is clearly revelling in the role.
Frank Lampard should be back after recovering from a calf strain but Juliano Belletti is unavailable after twisting his knee against Preston.
Birmingham manager Alex McLeish knows this game will present a real test for his side and is aware of the need to strengthen his squad this month while his team are on the up.
The manager has a hefty transfer kitty at his disposal following the takeover of the club by Hon Kong businessman Carson Yeung earlier this season and is keen to bring in a new striker.
"We need to get a striker, no doubt about it," said McLeish, who was without the injured Cameron Jerome and Kevin Phillips at Everton. "We need a striker to help these guys to achieve more than what they've already done.
"I cannot keep asking them to keep going game after game. You can't flog these guys to death.
"I have said in the past that we don't need to be spending 20 million or 40 million, but we will spend a few bob before the transfer window closes."
Moves for Liverpool's Ryan Babel and Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones were scuppered by the players' wage demands and McLeish has now been linked with a swoop for Standard Liege's Serbian striker Milan Jovanovic.