Drogba and Essien pay price of Chelsea slump

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Carlo Ancelotti appears to have survived the axe, for the moment at least, but some of his most senior players may not be so lucky.

The Chelsea manager is considering leaving out either Didier Drogba or Michael Essien, or even both, for today's home game with Blackburn Rovers, and pitching into their places a pair of young Englishmen.

Daniel Sturridge is the only striker in real form at the club. He scored twice in last Sunday's 7-0 demolition of Ipswich Town in the FA Cup third round, following five goals for the reserves against Tottenham Hotspur three days earlier, and is pushing to replace Drogba. Last season's Golden Boot winner has struggled for form this season, with eight Premier League goals from 20 appearances, including a hat-trick in the opening game against West Bromwich Albion.

In midfield 17-year-old Josh McEachran, excellent against Ipswich last weekend, could be given his first ever Premier League start, in place of Essien, who has been underperforming in recent weeks after a powerful start to the season.

Ancelotti said yesterday he is prepared to leave out some of his bigger stars and give youngsters like McEachran a chance. Ancelotti said: "McEachran is ready to start in the Premier League because he's doing very well. He has confidence, personality, is strong. You can look at him and think he won't be strong in the tackle, but he was against Ipswich. He doesn't lack anything. He's a good player, so we are lucky. We have found a player."

Chelsea currently occupy fifth place in the Premier League but Ancelotti is confident they will finish much higher. He stopped short yesterday of issuing a Rafa Benitez-style guarantee that the club would end the season in the Champions League places, but only just.

"I'm sure we will finish in the top four," he said. "This club needs to play the Champions League. I don't want to speak about financial reasons, but about the motivation of the players, the club, the manager. We have to play the Champions League. I didn't speak about that with Roman [Abramovich, the Chelsea owner]. We're not considering being out of the top four."

Chelsea have fallen off the pace in the title race, nine points behind leaders Manchester United who have a game in hand. Ancelotti thinks 80 points might enough to win it this season, which means Chelsea can only afford to drop a maximum of six points from their remaining 17 league games.

"In football, anything can happen. We can try. It'll be tough. Obviously, if you have to close the gap with Manchester United, we have to win the games against them," he said.

Nicolas Anelka is more positive, however, having been part of the Arsenal team of 1998 that overhauled United's 12-point advantage to win the title. "We have to win every game from now, and maybe we can do it, but to win every game is hard," he said.