Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, is to give the players who blew it at Manchester City a week ago a "last chance" to redeem themselves against Everton this afternoon.
The Premier League leaders were caught off guard at City last weekend, falling to a 2-1 defeat that cut their advantage at the top of the table to two points. Ancelotti is sticking with virtually the same team today, but in turn he has demanded more from them. He made it plain yesterday that changes will follow if he does not see a marked improvement in the intensity and pace of Chelsea's play when David Moyes' side visit Stamford Bridge.
Certain players who have been key performers in the past are now under pressure. Goalkeeper Petr Cech was at fault for City's winner from Carlos Tevez, Ricardo Carvalho in defence was below par, and the whole midfield were way below their best. Michael Essien, who is out for four weeks with a hamstring tear, and Deco, whose father is ill, will be missing today but the rest of the side that lost at City will be retained. Ancelotti said: "I want to give a chance to the players that lost against Manchester City."
"Second chance or last chance?" he was asked. "Last," he replied. Ancelotti said it with a smile and a chuckle, but the hint of menace remained. Possible replacements such as Alex and Salomon Kalou, who have both been out injured, will be ready to return in time for the visit of Portsmouth on Wednesday. Others such as Florent Malouda and Gaël Kakuta have been in excellent form when selected.
Ancelotti has made it abundantly clear to the Chelsea players in the past two days what he expects of them. The defeat at City was sandwiched between a Carling Cup defeat on penalties to Blackburn and a disappointing 2-2 draw at home with Champions League lightweights Apoel Nicosia on Tuesday night. Three games without a win and seven goals conceded, on the back of a relentless run of form that had been capped off with a brutal 3-0 victory at Arsenal.
Ancelotti spoke of his confidence in his side's ability to respond positively. He admitted they had been guilty of complacency against Nicosia in midweek and boldly predicted the players would make amends this afternoon.
"The situation is totally under control. You will see tomorrow that it is," he said. "I don't need to see anything. I know very well this team and have lot of confidence in them. They can lose a game, can make mistakes, but they have to show intensity for 90 minutes. This is our aim. Every three days we had important matches and it can happen that in the games against Apoel and Blackburn we lost some concentration. This is normal."
Nicolas Anelka, who has not scored a league goal since October, said Ancelotti has asked for a return of the form that saw Chelsea win five Premier League matches in a row without conceding a single goal.
Anelka said: "This week he said we have to put more intensity in, to come back to the way we were playing just before, to play our game and play with identity and enjoy our football."
Sir Alex Ferguson has said he would be happy to come out of Christmas two points behind Chelsea, but Ancelotti refused to be drawn into any psychological duels with the Manchester United manager. Instead he said he expects Chelsea to win these two home games with Everton and Portsmouth which would in turn put the pressure on the chasing pack.
"We need to return to play well, to do what is necessary in our job, to be strong and work hard and play well, with intensity. It's all in our hands," Ancelotti added.