And then there were two: Ancelotti facing crucial week in title fight with United
Having brushed aside the challenge of Arsenal with Sunday's 2-0 victory, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti yesterday considered the prospect of a title race with champions Manchester United with an air of composure, the look of a man who has done it all before.
"I am calm," Ancelotti said, "because we're top of the list. It's my character. In a relationship with the players you have to be like you are, you can't fake anything. I like to joke with my players."
That composure is sure to be pushed to the limit over the next three months. Ancelotti's command of the English language is improving week by week, but he may need a little help finding what the Italian is for Alex Ferguson's famous quote regarding the title run-in: "squeaky bum time."
With Arsenal effectively out of the race, Ancelotti faces going head to head with Ferguson, who has won the Premier League 11 times at United. The Italian described the prospect yesterday as "fantastic".
Ancelotti said: "This is a very good thing to have, this race against Manchester United. They're a fantastic team. They're involved in the Champions League like us. It will be for English football a fantastic thing to have two teams battling to the end of the season. We would like to win and have a desire to win something this season.
"We've done very well until now but now we have to do more, we have to do better. Now every game could be a decisive game. Both teams are in good condition now. They have a lot of confidence."
Tonight could prove to be the night when the title race kicks off in earnest. Chelsea travel to Everton with a two-point lead over United, who have a testing away fixture at Aston Villa.
Ancelotti said: "It could be a very important moment in the Premier League. It could be an important day."
United's task looks to be the harder of the two.
Villa have the best defensive record in the division, and have gone four hours and 59 minutes without conceding. The problem for them is at the other end of the pitch.
Scoring has not been an issue for Wayne Rooney this season, who travels to the Midlands on a superb run of form, with eight goals in his last six games in all competitions.
United have Rooney, and Chelsea have Didier Drogba, who has come back from his month away in Angola for the African Cup of Nations and scored three goals in his last two games. However, the Londoners' title credentials will face a stiff examination at Goodison Park.
Everton have won their last three home games by a 2-0 scoreline, while Chelsea have dropped 10 points in their last five away games.
Ancelotti knows all about the aerial threat Everton pose after Chelsea were held to a 3-3 draw at home the last time the teams met, at Stamford Bridge in December. Chelsea conceded three soft goals from set-pieces in what was probably the worst defensive performance by the league leaders this season. Everton will be without Marouane Fellaini who has an ankle injury.
Ancelotti said there is so little to choose between Chelsea and United and he believes the title will be decided by small issues, such as who has the least injuries or suspensions.
"It will be a race for details," he said. "We have our characteristics, they have theirs. Some different. It's about the details, like the Champions League."
Ancelotti's jovial exterior, however, belies a record in Italian football of regularly coming second. He won only one Scudetto in 11 full seasons as a coach with Juventus and Milan, but finished runner-up three times.
The aftermath of Chelsea's victory over Arsenal has been dominated by a war of words between the camps. Arsene Wenger insisted after the match his team had deserved to win, a claim that was later branded an "excuse" by Chelsea's Michael Ballack.
Ancelotti yesterday backed his German player in the row, saying there is such a thing as having too much possession of the ball.
He said: "Ballack said good things because we prepared very well for the game and did what we wanted to do on the pitch, nothing else."
Captain John Terry has been passed fit to play tonight after suffering a dead leg against Arsenal. Ancelotti will decide tomorrow if Terry can miss the weekend's FA Cup fixture against Cardiff to fly out to Dubai to try to patch things up with his wife Toni.
Ancelotti said: "He has not asked me for time off."
Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand has dropped an appeal against his increased ban for violent conduct in a move designed to spare the FA the embarrassment of more disciplinary action against the new England captain. (© Independent News Service)