Football: Vialli proud to be a contender

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HAVING SIDLED up quietly on the rails in the title race, Chelsea have the chance to put themselves back into pole position at the top of the Premiership with victory at Middlesbrough tonight.

Just a month ago, player-manager Gianluca Vialli ruled out his side's chances of winning the championship after defeat at home to West Ham left them seven points behind Manchester United, even if they still had a game in hand.

Even two weeks ago, Chelsea were as high as 8-1 for the title as the two supposed heavyweights in the field, United and Arsenal, contested the lead.

However a fifth consecutive away League win, at Boro, would take Chelsea top for the first time since early January and leave them a point clear of United, even if they would have then played a game more than Alex Ferguson's side.

As United and Arsenal prepared for a second exhausting match within the space of four days in their FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park, Vialli was still continuing an apparently self-imposed vow of silence. Perhaps due to the furore over the gaoling of Graham Rix, perhaps to keep the spotlight off his team or to relieve the pressure on himself, the normally loquacious Italian has missed press conferences.

The coach, Ray Wilkins, has stepped in to meet the media over recent weeks in a tactic used by the Aston Villa manager, John Gregory, back in December when his side faced a perilous series of games against fellow title contenders.

And the situation has hardly been helped by confirmation from Uefa, European football's governing body, that they would be reviewing a video of the incident in which Dennis Wise was seen attempting to bite the arm of Real Mallorca defender Elena Marcelino last Thursday.

Wise may incur a two-match ban that would rule him out of the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final second leg as well as any possible final appearance if a disciplinary hearing is, as expected, held later this week.

So with no Press conference arranged ahead of tonight's game, the only way of ascertaining Vialli's thoughts on his side's title chances was to scan his programme notes ahead of last week's tie against Mallorca.

In them, he stressed the importance of the sequence of four away games on which his side had embarked after the 1-0 defeat by the Hammers. "We're trying our best to keep up with Manchester United and Arsenal and so many away games makes things a little difficult," he wrote. "But looking at the way we've started the four, six points from the first two gives me confidence for the future. It's getting very tight up there in the table and that's obviously very exciting for all the supporters. It's a great feeling and something to be proud of for the club still to be in contention."

Having admitted Chelsea were indeed back in contention, victory at Wimbledon last Sunday served only to confirm that fact and another away win tomorrow night would complete the four-match sequence.

Boro, who still have to play United and Arsenal at the Riverside, have only been beaten at home once this season in the League - by Liverpool - but Chelsea will travel full of renewed confidence.

Wise and Marcel Desailly, who missed the 2-1 victory at Wimbledon through suspension, will be available again to reinforce the spine of the team.

And midfielder Gustavo Poyet is set to start his second game since his return from a lengthy injury lay-off, having scored his 12th goal of the campaign at Selhurst Park to make him the club's second top goalscorer alongside Gianfranco Zola.

The full-back Albert Ferrer, who came off injured against Real Mallorca but was an unused substitute at Wimbledon, may also be back in contention.

However, the midfielder Celestine Babayaro is likely to face a fitness test after missing the club's past four games with a groin problem and then a chest infection.