The title Race: And then there were two...

Carlo Ancelotti has declared the battle a straight fight between Chelsea and United. As both clubs prepare for tricky away games, Mark Fleming asks who has the upper hand
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The Independent Football

Having brushed aside the challenge of Arsenal with Sunday's 2-0 victory, Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, 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 Sir 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. I saw Manchester United against Arsenal and they played very well. They are a very dangerous team to be against us."

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 in the League 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 Africa 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 in the League by a 2-0 scoreline, while Chelsea have dropped nine 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. However Everton will be without the towering 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. Arsène Wenger insisted after the match his team had deserved to win, a claim that was later branded an "excuse" by Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack.

Ancelotti yesterday backed the 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. Sometimes to have possession is very dangerous against a team that plays on counter-attack. That we did very well."

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."

Head to head: How title challengers compare


Strike power Can cope without Didier Drogba; scored 12 goals while he was at Africa Cup of Nations.

Defensive strength Have a settled back four, who have fought to overcome their early-season frailty at set-pieces.

Injury concerns Key midfielder Michael Essien is still out with a knee problem, but other main players are fit.

Decisive games Tricky away trips to Old Trafford, Tottenham and Liverpool before the end of the season.

Manchester United

Strike power The outstanding Wayne Rooney leads with 21 goals. Next highest? Own goals with eight.

Defensive strength Injury-ridden throughout the season, but new England captain Rio Ferdinand is, at last, fit again.

Injury concerns Nemanja Vidic is close to a return, but Owen Hargreaves and John O'Shea are long-term absentees.

Decisive games Travel to Villa tonight, host Chelsea on 3 April, plus a difficult trip to local rivals Manchester City.