Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, cut to the chase yesterday in predicting tomorrow's Premier League title showdown with Manchester United at Old Trafford will be won not by formations and tactics, but by desire and character.
Ancelotti has been schooled in the fine old Italian tradition with its focus on detailed systems and thorough organisation, but faced with a game that will go a long way to deciding the fate of this most unpredictable of seasons, he metaphorically tore up the tactics manual and implored his defending champions to play from the heart.
"I want to say one thing," Ancelotti announced to the media at yesterday's press conference at the club's training ground in Cobham. "The line-up will not be what decides this game. This game will be decided through the courage of the players, the personality, the character. We don't need to be worried, afraid about this. We have to play at our best. With courage and personality; 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 is not important."
He returned to the theme a little later. "The players are motivated themselves. They don't have a problem with motivation. The problem is the fear. Being afraid, to lose energy by being too afraid," he said.
Fear has not been a problem for Chelsea in the league of late. Eight wins and a draw from their last nine Premier League games have brought Ancelotti's reborn side right back into the title race. The gap that was once 15 points has been slashed to just three, and victory over United tomorrow would put Chelsea top on goal difference, with two games remaining.
The momentum is with them, even though Chelsea needed the fortuitous intervention of the match officials to complete a 2-1 victory over Tottenham last Saturday. Manchester United's capitulation to Arsenal the following day has thrown the race wide open, and raised suggestions that Sir Alex Ferguson's side are in danger of a collective choke.
Ancelotti, like Ferguson, has seen it happen before. Ferguson's United team had a 13-point lead over Arsenal which was overhauled in 1998; two years later Sven Goran Eriksson's Lazio clawed back the nine-point lead held by Ancelotti's Juventus to win the Scudetto on the last day of the season.
Ancelotti accepted that United remain favourites to win the league, but claimed Chelsea have the mental edge going into tomorrow's game, as United have to raise their game again.
"I think that, mentally, we can have an advantage. Obviously, Man United hoped they wouldn't have to play this kind of game against us. If they'd had more of an advantage, it could have been an easy game against us – not easy, but a different game. Now the title... they have to fight again for the title. Maybe two or three weeks ago they didn't think in this game they'd need to fight so much. Mentally, for this reason, we can have an advantage," Ancelotti said.
The Italian brushed off Ferguson's claim a week ago that Chelsea seem to win more than their fair share of refereeing decisions in big games. "You either have to accept the decision of the referees or say there's a conspiracy. I'm a man who thinks they can make mistakes," Ancelotti said.
He added he was happy that Howard Webb would be officiating, describing the man who refereed the World Cup final last year as "fantastic".
Ancelotti's major selection dilemma concerns whether to start with Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres at the centre of a three-man strike force. Ancelotti denied it would be a gamble to play Torres from the start, but must surely favour Drogba, although it is worth noting that a year ago, when Chelsea won at Old Trafford in the league, Drogba was on the bench and Nicolas Anelka started in his place, flanked by Florent Malouda and Joe Cole. Drogba appeared late on and scored the winner.
Ancelotti predicted all his strikers would be involved at some point. "I want my players to understand that it's not so important to start the game, but that they will be involved, even for 20 minutes. We've won games from players who have come on from the bench," he said.
Since that 2-1 victory at Old Trafford last April, Chelsea have beaten United in the league at Stamford Bridge, and also lost both home and away in the Champions League quarter-finals last month. It was pointed out to Ancelotti yesterday that no team has won at Old Trafford since Chelsea did it, 30 games ago. "It's time to win," the Italian answered with a smile.
Top two's remaining games:
Chelsea (h): Tomorrow
Blackburn (a): Saturday 14 May
Blackpool (h): Sunday 22 May
Man United (a): Tomorrow
Newcastle (h): Sunday 15 May
Everton (a): Sunday 22 May