Didier Drogba arrives back at Chelsea today from Africa Cup of Nations duty to a team that has scored 14 goals in three victories since he left. Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, marked the occasion by saying he doubted that Manchester United would cope so well without their own striking talisman, Wayne Rooney.
Drogba is due back from Angola this morning after Ivory Coast's surprising elimination but returns too late to be considered for selection in tonight's Premier League fixture with Birmingham at Stamford Bridge. In Drogba's absence Chelsea have turned their game up a notch, and he returns to a side brimming with both confidence and goals, led up front by Nicolas Anelka. Ancelotti was put on the spot yesterday about how United would cope in similar circumstances should Rooney pick up an injury this season, and the Italian made it clear he believed the champions would struggle to win their fourth successive title.
"Without Rooney it would be difficult," Ancelotti said. "He's the best striker at Manchester United, one of the best strikers in the world. He's a very decisive player for Manchester United. We have a possibility without Didier because we can put Anelka on, another top striker in the world."
Ancelotti appeared before the media yesterday with a couple of days' stubble. His razor may be blunt but his words were sharp and cutting. Chelsea have played so well of late that Ancelotti claimed Drogba is not assured of an immediate return to the side at Burnley on Saturday. Asked if the Ivorian would walk back into the side, a coy Ancelotti said: "I don't know. Drogba is an important player for us but we've played very well without him. This means, as I always said, we have a very good squad. It's important that he comes back here because we have a lot of games in this period and we need to have a lot of players able to play. I prefer if Didier had stayed here because he's so important to us."
The absence of star names for the Africa Cup of Nations has not hampered Chelsea's progress as many, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, had predicted. Only John Obi Mikel remains in Africa, having helped Nigeria reach the semi-final stage. Chelsea have flourished, not faltered, in January and by the weekend they will be strengthened by the return of Drogba and Salomon Kalou.
Chelsea host Birmingham tonight without Juliano Belletti who has been ruled out for up to four weeks with a knee injury. Deco is likely to replace Belletti in the Chelsea midfield, with Joe Cole and Florent Malouda supporting Anelka up front, in the same formation that beat Sunderland 7-2 two games ago.
Ancelotti said Cole, whose contract runs out at the end of the season, still needs to up his game. "The last game against Sunderland he [Cole] did very well without the ball, moved very well. He has to improve when he has the ball. He has the quality to do better when he has the ball," Ancelotti said.
He also insisted that Anelka will stay at the club. The Frenchman has just 18 months left on his existing contract and Chelsea are keen to tie him down to a long-term deal. "I think that they are speaking with his agent and they will try to find the right solution for both the club and for him," said Ancelotti. "I'm confident he'll sign."Reuse content