All change for Blues as Ancelotti focuses on title race

Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, has ripped apart the team that defeated Sunderland 7-2 a week ago for today's FA Cup fourth-round tie away to Preston North End because he believes his team are about to enter a decisive period in the Premier League.

Chelsea were knocked off top spot by Arsenal in midweek, a position they had held since mid-October. Starting with next Wednesday's home fixture with Birmingham City, Chelsea face five league games in a 15-day spell. Which means that yesterday when Ancelotti announced his team to play Preston, there was no room for Joe Cole and Florent Malouda, two of six players rested after last weekend's stellar performance.

Petr Cech and Branislav Ivanovic were also omitted by Ancelotti, who revealed that scans have shown that Michael Essien will be out for between four and six weeks after suffering a meniscus cartilage tear in his knee.

The changes represent something of a gamble as only three weeks ago Ancelotti claimed that retaining the FA Cup was one of the major goals of the season. But the Italian insisted that he must rotate his team to ensure everyone in the squad stays sharp.

"Joe Cole and Malouda will start on the bench because I want to give Deco time to improve his condition," he said. "Now we start a very important period of the season because we will not have free weeks to train."

The decision to omit Cole is an interesting one because it ends a run of three successive starts for the England midfielder, his longest run in the team this season. Cole has yet to agree terms on a new contract to replace his current deal which expires in June. Ancelotti said he remains "100 per cent" certain Cole will stay at the club yet at the same time cannot promise the 28-year-old a starting place.

"No, I cannot guarantee to Joe that he'll play in every game," he said. "I cannot guarantee that to any of my players. I never guarantee that, even the big players. How can a manager guarantee that? That's impossible."

Ancelotti promised his much-changed side will not take lightly the trip to a club lying 17th in the Championship. "There are strange results in the last round and we don't want to have a strange result in this round," he said. "It is, for us, an important aim for this season and we have to try to win."

However, Chelsea's eyes are on a greater prize. The date of 7 February is looming large for Ancelotti, when Chelsea host Arsenal in the Premier League, and he believes the period between now and then will truly test Arsenal's title credentials. "They have a very strong period – Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool," the manager said.