Drogba and Rooney ready to play pivotal roles

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The Independent Online

At this point last season, the leading four teams in the Premier League were separated by eight points and only three of them were contenders for the title. This morning the margin between the leading quartet is a mere three points, all four are serious contenders and if Manchester City are able to defeat the weather and then Everton at Eastlands tomorrow night, they will become the third different leaders in the space of eight days.

It is true that all the teams have failed to establish the consistency of champions, but any Scrooges crying "humbug" at this state of affairs on grounds of inferior quality should be ignored. Would they rather that Chelsea were already running away with the League, as they threatened to do when dashing off five straight wins to start the campaign, the first two of them by six goals to nil?

As late as the end of October, they were five points clear but since then the effect of injuries has been felt, above all to three key players in DidierDrogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry. "If you lose your top players, it must have an impact," Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson said on Friday, singling out Lampard for his "incredible" average of 20 goals a season from midfield. So far this season, having required a hernia operation at the end of August, Lampard has only one.

Postponement of today's meeting at Stamford Bridge between Ferguson's League leaders and Carlo Ancelotti's champions means the aforementioned trio have a useful mini-break in which to restore their bodies to peak fitness. Nicolas Anelkaand Michael Essien are among those who have failed to take the extra weight in a run that stretches to one win in seven games and Ancelotti admits he used Drogba when he might have been rested. "I spoke with him a lot of times, because I understood he was not in good condition, but he had difficulty to play with malaria. I put him in the last game [at Tottenham] because even if he was not 100 per cent we need to have his character and personality. Now his condition is really better and his score against Tottenham could show a different Drogba in the next game."

That game is tomorrow week against Arsenal, a team Drogba has mercilessly bullied over the years, scoring 13 times in 11 meetings.

Ancelotti has to hope the prospect of improvement will satisfy the club's impatient owner Roman Abramovich: "I have talked to him about the problems that we have had and that I had a good reason to say they were clear problems. We had a lot of injuries at particular moments, without Drogba,Alex, Terry, Lampard and Essien.

"With these problems it is difficult to manage a team and maintain a team at the top level. Everyone knows that it was a very clear problem." That "everyone", he needs to believe, includes the owner, whose most recent contribution was to make things worse by sacking Ancelotti's popular coach Ray Wilkins. Last season Lampard and Terry missed only three League games between them, and Drogba six, serious injuries rarely hampering the squad. In the crucial period last spring, Drogba and Lampard kept scoring, while United's main striker Wayne Rooney hurt his ankle in Munich, missed the defeat at home to Chelsea and did not score in the last seven weeks of the season.

"I saw him playing against Arsenal and he is coming back," Ancelotti said. "Without Rooney they have managed to stay at the top of the table. This means they are better compared to last season. When Rooney had the problem last year they lost power."

At this level there can be no talk of one-man teams. But one man can still make a huge difference if the chase for the title continues to be the tightest in memory.