Ancelotti fearful Rooney injury will spur on United

Italian predicts more title twists and feels champions can cope with loss of talisman

Carlo Ancelotti is far too nice a man to take joy from another's misfortune, so when he saw Wayne Rooney hobble out of Manchester United's Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich on Tuesday night the Chelsea manager's first emotion was one of sympathy for the player.

Ancelotti is himself a former Italian international who had his fair share of injuries during his career, so he would never wish ill on another professional. But by the same token he also understands that injuries are very much part and parcel of the game, that key players can be taken from your side at any moment, and he understood how Rooney's injury could be a turning point in the contest at the top of the Premier League table.

Ancelotti had earlier predicted there would be many more twists and turns in the title race, and so it has proved with the news that Rooney will be out of the Manchester United side for four weeks. With just one point separating United from Chelsea at the top of the table, and the two teams meeting tomorrow at Old Trafford, the advantage has swung back towards Ancelotti.

The Chelsea manager admitted yesterday the loss of Rooney – a player the former Milan manager had described two weeks ago as "the best in the world" – is a boost for his own hopes of landing the Premier League title in his first season in charge. Ancelotti said: "You know how I respect him, he is one of the best in the world. He is very professional. His image is very good for football and I like this kind of players. I was sorry for him but I think without Rooney for us it's better."

Ancelotti also added the caveat that the loss of Rooney (right) could provide added motivation for the defending champions at Old Trafford tomorrow. "Everyone knows how important Rooney is for them," the Chelsea manager said. "He's a fantastic player and had a fantastic season. This injury could be an advantage for us. But sometimes a team gives more then 100 per cent when a very important player is out and we have to pay attention to this. Manchester United have the experience and the players to support the loss of Rooney."

Ancelotti also pointed out that Chelsea have endured the loss of several key players through the season, and claimed his preferred option would be the hypothetical situation where all teams are at full strength.

"I would like if Manchester United could use Rooney against us, that Cesc Fabregas could play [for Arsenal], and I have my players ready. I want to remind you that we have Michael Essien, Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa, Branislav Ivanovic and Ricardo Carvalho all out. I don't know if that's an advantage."

Dimitar Berbatov is almost certain to take Rooney's place in the United side at Old Trafford tomorrow, possibly with Ryan Giggs behind him and Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park on the flanks. "The manager will be clever in the way he uses the squad," United captain Gary Neville said. "He always has been brave at times. I don't think there will be six or seven changes per match but the manager will always freshen things up."

Didier Drogba will return for Chelsea, having missed two days' training after receiving a kick on his knee from team-mate Yuri Zhirkov. Ancelotti revealed that Drogba has been playing despite a niggling groin injury that may require surgery in the summer.

"He's living with this problem for three or four months," Ancelotti said. "Sometimes he has a problem after the game but during the week he is ok. He doesn't need an operation now. If he has one at the end of the season he will be ready in seven days."

Ancelotti will lead Chelsea out at Old Trafford for the first time tomorrow, but it is a ground he holds dear to his heart, having won the Champions League final there in 2003 when he led Milan to victory on penalties over Juventus. "Old Trafford is a fantastic stadium, for me, also. Not only for Sir Alex Ferguson," Ancelotti said. "I have good memories, the best memories of my career. I will always love that stadium."

His team have less favourable memories of Old Trafford, having lost 3-0 there last season in one of the club's worst performances in years. Captain John Terry said the players are keen to exorcise the ghost of that particular defeat. "We have to approach the game with no fear and we must go into it playing our own game. It is a tough place to go and the way we got beaten there and the way we played there last year was not good enough. We go there not only with confidence from the last few games but still hurting from that defeat, and that will spur us on," he said.

Ancelotti has a reputation for liking a joke, so yesterday being April Fool's Day he could not resist the temptation to try to trick his players, although they read him all too easily. The Chelsea manager said: "I tried to do a joke but the players found me out straight away. I said to them, 'Today we change training; I want to do a double session because I need to try a new tactical shape for the United game'. And Michael Ballack turned straight to me and said, 'Coach, it's 1st April today'."

And the winner is... Our experts give their predictions on who will take the title

James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer

1 Manchester United

2 Chelsea

3 Arsenal

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

1 Manchester United

2 Chelsea

3 Arsenal

Glenn Moore, Football Editor

1 Chelsea

2 Manchester United

3 Arsenal

Ian Herbert, Deputy Football Correspondent

1 Manchester United

2 Chelsea

3 Arsenal

Mark Fleming, Football writer

1 Chelsea

2 Manchester United

3 Arsenal

Nick Harris, Football writer

1 Manchester United

2 Arsenal

3 Chelsea

Neil Warnock, Independent columnist

1 Chelsea

2 Manchester United

3 Arsenal

Steve Tongue, Football writer

1 Chelsea

2 Manchester United

3 Arsenal

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