Sir Alex Ferguson has said that while Arsenal possessed the more talented footballers, Chelsea's greater depth of experience meant that they, rather than Arsène Wenger's side, were always likely to be Manchester United's main title rivals.
Realistically, it is hard to imagine the title going anywhere other than Old Trafford. Should they overcome Everton – who have not won in the red half of Manchester since 1992 – this afternoon, United would require seven points from their four remaining fixtures to be guaranteed an unprecedented 19th league championship.
Never the less, Chelsea, six points behind and with a game at Old Trafford next month, have not given up hope of mounting a last-ditch recovery and their resurgence has come as no surprise to Ferguson.
"Looking at the two of them, Chelsea are far more experienced than Arsenal; they are a strong team," the Manchester United manager said. "That is the difference between the two, Arsenal are the better footballers but Chelsea are the better, stronger team.
"I said Chelsea would be our main challengers a few weeks ago. I don't know if you were listening, you obviously weren't, and now they are above Arsenal. I recognise that both clubs are six points behind us but I have that slight preference for Chelsea because their fixture list is a wee bit easier, though they have to come to Old Trafford and that won't be easy for them."
Like a politician who concedes an election and then demands a recount, Carlo Ancelotti has changed his mind several times about whether Chelsea could recover from the two-month seizure between 14 November and 5 January that saw them drop 18 points in eight games.
Ferguson pointed out that it was a slip that Manchester United capitalised on with all the ruthlessness that has become their trademark, winning six of their seven matches in that period and drawing the other, at Birmingham. "We all get blips in a season," he said. "They were odds-on for the Premier League at one point and then they hit that blip. Credit to us because we took advantage of it."
However, realistically, a Chelsea comeback requires not only that they win all their remaining fixtures but also that their opponents falter in the home straight and that is something United seldom do.
In their last four Premier League seasons Manchester United have dropped an average of only three points in their final five fixtures and Ferguson argued that, if they overcame Everton this afternoon, it would be hard to see a way back for Chelsea. "If we win against Everton, there are only four games left and we would have a minimum of a six-point lead," he said. "You run out of games eventually and that's why I am not looking beyond the Everton game."
For the first time in several seasons, Ferguson has not been asked to deny rumours he is planning to retire, although should he lift the European Cup for the third time those questions will resurface.
However, the illness that has forced Gérard Houllier, who is six years Ferguson's junior, to withdraw from the remainder of the season at Aston Villa, puts into sharp focus that in his 70th year, Ferguson is by a distance the Premier League's oldest manager.
"Age doesn't come without penalties," he said. "Some mornings I wake up with aches and pains and I worry what it is. I sometimes say to my doctor: 'I've got a pain here and a pain there' and he says: 'It's your age, you're growing old; that's what happens.' You hope you can keep your health. I had a pacemaker put in seven years ago. That was the first indication that your body is not working the same as it was 20 years ago.
"I am sure there are more stressful occupations than football management but it's about dealing with stress. Sometimes, people feel pressure getting an electricity bill; it depends what state of life you are in and what your conditions in life are. Stress is always there for everyone in different ways. How you deal with it does make a difference."Reuse content