Mourinho set to drop struggling Shevchenko

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The Independent Football

The gap at the top of the Premiership is eight points and, as Manchester United wait to see whether Chelsea can close it to five, Jose Mourinho faces the decision whether or not to stick with his struggling £31m striker Andrei Shevchenko tonight. He has waited until this morning to tell his players the team to face Newcastle United and, for the first time, it would seem that the Ukrainian's place is under serious threat.

Another lacklustre performance against Arsenal on Sunday, compared with the impact that Arjen Robben's introduction had on the game, has pushed Mourinho close to dropping the man brought in at Roman Abramovich's behest. Shevchenko, who has admitted that he has been struggling to fit in, was also told yesterday that returning to Milan in January was not an option.

As it has become clear that the striker has been the big disappointment of Chelsea's season, reports have linked him with a loan move back to Milan - despite the fact that he would be ineligible to play for them in the Champions' League this season. While Chelsea have dismissed that suggestion, it was Milan, for whom Shevchenko scored 173 goals in 296 matches, who knocked back the notion this time.

The club president, Silvio Berlusconi, described the issue of Shevchenko returning as "a closed argument" on the official Milan website yesterday. With just one victory in their last seven league games, and 15th in Serie A, Berlusconi, whose side had an eight-point penalty from the match-fixing scandal, put his faith in the current team.

For the match at Stamford Bridge tonight, Carlo Cudicini is still struggling with a leg muscle injury and Hilario is likely to continue in goal. Joe Cole has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot - he will miss another three weeks of an injury-jinxed season. However, goalkeeper Petr Cech has said that he will return to full training this month after his skull fracture.

Cech said: "Last week I spent a whole day in Oxford with the surgeon for some consultations and tests. We are still waiting for the report from that but as far as I am concerned, we are looking very positive and very well. Especially the brain is working very well and I haven't lost anything I had.

"There is still time to go with the skull fracture because it has not healed and I have to be patient with that, but hopefully that will go quickly as well. It is looking like that, about the middle of January, I will be able to start training in the goal. So I will just try to enjoy the time with my family, enjoy the time with the lads at the training ground and now I have plenty of time to work."

The Newcastle manager, Glenn Roeder, said that he was "surprised" that Mourinho had said so emphatically on Sunday that Manchester United's lead would be cut to five points with a home win tonight. "He certainly does not have to play mind games with Newcastle or me," Roeder said.

"I would just take the view that in the heat of the moment while being really disappointed at dropping two points against Arsenal, he came out and said that," he added.