Drogba sounds African warning to Chelsea

Ancelotti's squad will be stretched by January departures to Nations Cup
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The Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti has overcome his first blip since taking charge back in June. The Italian said Sunday's 2-0 victory over Liverpool demonstrated that he had identified and then rectified the problems inherent in Chelsea's 3-1 defeat at Wigan Athletic a week earlier.

A far more testing conundrum, however, looms on the horizon, one that will test his managerial talents to the full. The African Nations Cup is three months away, and it only lasts three weeks, but already it is being seen as a potentially decisive factor in the Premier League title race.

Four players – Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel – are likely to be missing for four Premier League fixtures. The calendar has fallen kindly for Chelsea, as their opponents during that period are Hull City, Sunderland, Birmingham City and Burnley.

However as their defeat at Wigan last month demonstrated, Chelsea will pay the price if they take any opponent lightly. And there can be little doubt they will be seriously under-strength in the first month of 2010.

Senior players are concerned about what happens in January. Didier Drogba will be on duty with Ivory Coast, and admitted after the Liverpool match he is uncertain how the club will cope. "We think about it sometimes but it is up to the club to find a solution," he said. "It will be difficult for me to leave but at the same time I have to do it because it's a big event for Africans and I want to be there."

Chelsea have demonstrated they can cope without Drogba in their two Champions League matches this season, with victories over Porto and Apoel Nicosia. But in both matches his deputy was Kalou who will line up alongside him in Angola in the colours of Ivory Coast.

The only recognised senior striker left at the club will be Nicolas Anelka. The Argentine striker Franco Di Santo is likely to return from his loan spell at Blackburn Rovers, where he has started the last two games. Apart from that, Ancelotti will have to rely on youngsters Daniel Sturridge, 20, and Fabio Borini, 18.

At least Ancelotti has more options in midfield, where he will lose Essien and his ready-made replacement Mikel. Essien was outstanding against Liverpool on Sunday, providing the energy from the base of the diamond to drive Chelsea to victory.

Ancelotti had implored his side to propel the ball faster through the midfield without losing possession. Chelsea responded by following Ancelotti's instructions to the letter against Liverpool, with Essien's urgency a key factor.

In January, without Essien at the heart of the midfield, the role will probably fall to 33-year-old Juliano Belletti. The Brazilian has played the role before, but only against lower league opposition in domestic cups.

After the win over Liverpool, Ancelotti highlighted his team's power and muscle, attributes that are embodied in Drogba and Essien. Without those two in January, and their understudies, Ancelotti's skill as a manager will be tested to the full.

Out to Africa: Clubs that will lose players during the Cup

*Arsenal: Alex Song (Cameroon), Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast). May miss: Everton (a), Bolton (h), Aston Villa (a), Man Utd (h).

*Burnley: Andre Bikey (Cameroon). Stoke (h), Man United (a), Bolton (a), Chelsea (h).

*Chelsea: Michael Essien (Ghana), Jon Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Didier Drogba (right), Salomon Kalou (both Ivory Coast). Hull (a), Sunderland (h), Birmingham (a) and Burnley (a).

*Everton: Joseph Yobo, Yakubu (both Nigeria). Arsenal (a), Man City (h), Sunderland (h), Wigan (a).

*Fulham: John Pantsil (Ghana), Dickson Etuhu (Nigeria). Portsmouth (h), Blackburn (a), Spurs (a), Aston Villa (h).

*Hull: Daniel Cousin (Gabon), Kamel Ghilas (Algeria). Chelsea (h), Spurs (a), Man Utd (a), Wolves (h).

*Manchester City: Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), Kolo Touré. Blackburn (h), Everton (a), Stoke (a), Portsmouth (h).

*Portsmouth: John Utaka, Kanu (both Nigeria), Aruna Dindane (Ivory Coast). Fulham (a), Birmingham (h), West Ham (h), Man City (a).

*Sunderland: John Mensah (Ghana). Bolton (h), Chelsea (a), Everton (a), Stoke (h).

*Tottenham: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Cameroon). Liverpool (a), Hull (h), Fulham (h), Birmingham (a)

*Stoke: Mamady Sidibe (Mali). Burnley (a), Liverpool (h), Man City (h), Sunderland (a).