CARLOS TEVEZ is targeting a return to the Manchester City squad for next week's Premier League clash with Chelsea, after being handed a week of intensive training in an attempt to end his five-month exile.
The former City captain, absent from manager Roberto Mancini's match-day squad since the Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich last September, has been on a conditioning programme at the club's Carrington training ground since returning from an unauthorised three-month break in Buenos Aires on February 14.
Tevez has since made two appearances for the reserve team -- scoring in last week's Manchester Senior Cup win against Bolton at Hyde -- but the 28-year-old has been withdrawn from the travelling party for the second string's friendly with NEC Nijmegen in Holland tomorrow, to hone his fitness on the training pitch ahead of the crucial encounter with Chelsea on March 21.
Mancini admitted following Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Swansea, which enabled Manchester United to move to the top of the table, that Tevez was "maybe another 10 days" away from first-team fitness.
However, plans to push the Argentina forward on the training ground this week have been designed to ensure that he is available for selection against Chelsea, should Mancini choose to name him in the squad.
Although the Italian insisted that Tevez was "finished" at the club after refusing to warm-up against Bayern five months ago, he has softened his stance following the player's apology for his actions and is ready to consider him for first-team football again.
The sentiment in the dressing room is also favourable towards a Tevez return, and defender Micah Richards admits that the Argentine -- a title winner with United in 2008 and 2009 -- could be a crucial addition to the squad over the final 10 games of the season.
"I've always been a big fan of Tevez," Richards said. "There were games last season when he carried us on his own. There were games like this (Swansea) last season where he would get a 1-0 win for us. I'd love to see him back.
"We need to go back and see where we're going wrong, why we're not scoring as many goals as we used to. Teams seem to be defending better against us. We were scoring four, five and six against teams and now we've gone through a spell where we have been struggling to score."
With United claiming top spot ahead of a run of fixtures against teams in the bottom half of the table, City's forthcoming games against Chelsea and Arsenal, plus a trip to Stoke, have led to suggestions that Mancini's team face an uphill battle to overhaul United.
But Mancini claims the title is still within City's reach. He said: "The title is long, but clearly at this moment their confidence is better. But it doesn't change anything. What is important is to be there at the end."
Meanwhile, Joleon Lescott is a doubt for Thursday's Europa League second leg against Sporting Lisbon, but remains "optimistic" about overcoming a groin injury in time to face Chelsea.