Cech says real title race starts on Sunday

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The Independent Online

Petr Cech has urged Chelsea to make the most of the hectic Premier League Christmas fixture list and derail the challenge of their title rivals Arsenal.

The brilliant Czech Republic goalkeeper returned from five games out injured in Tuesday night's Champions League stalemate against Valencia and is preparing for Sunday's top-of-the-table showdown with the Gunners.

Cech believes the real title race starts here especially with previously imperious Arsenal dropping points at Newcastle and Middlesbrough in the past week.

"It is a time of the year when there are so many difficult games in such a short space of time," he said.

"Squads have injuries and suspensions and those sorts of things, and it can really change things.

"The first year I came to Chelsea, I remember going into the Christmas period five points behind Arsenal but then we got a good 2-2 draw at Highbury. By the time the Christmas matches were all completed, we were five points ahead.

"I'm not saying that if you are top of the League just after Christmas then it is all done. But you are past the halfway mark and a lot closer to the title. Until that busy period is over, anything can happen."

Arsenal have set the standard this season with some sublime football. But recent setbacks have coincided with injuries to key performers Cesc Fabregas, Alex Hleb and Mathieu Flamini.

They are also starting to miss the goals of Robin van Persie, who has been out since mid-October after scoring seven in 11 games. But Cech said: "We have also had to cope without some big players. John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have all been missing for small spells not just me although we are fortunate to have Carlo Cudicini as a great goalkeeper. Now Didier Drogba is out, but we are still winning points.

"Arsenal have shown what a good side they are, but I think we are catching them up. We are only three points behind now and unbeaten in 16 games.

"If we get a point on Sunday, it would be a good result for us as the away team. But if we won, of course, that would be a great situation."

The England midfielder Frank Lampard added: "It's a massive game for us on Sunday. Arsenal have been fantastic this season but, obviously, they've slipped up a bit in the last couple of games.

"We'll have to be at our best. I certainly don't detect any uncertainty creeping in at Arsenal, but that can happen when key players are missing. You could say it is a good time to play them but who knows? Potentially, they will be without Fabregas and Hleb again and I think they've been two of their best. But we've also got people missing.

"It would be nice to see the two teams at full pelt. But in modern-day football, that rarely happens. The amount of games you've got and the different demands on players means it's all about having a really strong squad."

Drogba, the Ivory coast striker, is out for at least three weeks and is also set to head for Ghana and the African Nations Cup early in the new year. He will miss up to eight more Chelsea games. The Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, has backed his side to cope, saying: "We want Didier to play with us but we have won games without him."

Andrei Shevchenko looks set to continue deputising for Drogba. He said: "For me, it was important to play now that the manager is giving me a chance to play and Sunday's game is a very big one.

"I feel good. I'm preparing myself the best I can to play for the team but I don't know yet if that is for Sunday."

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