There is only one way in which Chelsea can prove that they have emerged from under that black cloud that has followed them for the past three months and that, as John Terry agreed on Tuesday night, is by beating Manchester United at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday.
For Terry, speaking after the 2-0 win over FC Copenhagen in Denmark on Tuesday, it was all about closing the gap on the Premier League leaders – a gap which may yet prove unbridgeable even if Chelsea win both their League games against United. At the very least, a win next week would mean that Chelsea, assuming victory in their game in hand, had the advantage over Spurs for fourth place.
It was, said Terry, "an ideal time" to get going in the title race. "If we want to put in a run and a charge for the Premier League, we must beat United. A draw's no good and, obviously, losing is no good at all. We go into the game with no fear, just passion. Being able to put pressure on them would be great."
It is still only a very faint hope for Chelsea that they might retain their title but Terry drew encouragement from the example of United reeling in Newcastle in the 1995-96 season from 12 points behind, a feat that no one has repeated. That 1996 run-in is usually cited as a last resort by chasing teams.
United, Terry said, were "certainly not invincible" and he added: "Away to Blackpool, [the home side] got in their faces but what it did show, once again, was their [United's] experience. People like [Ryan] Giggs, who came on in the game and was exceptional and made the first goal... we've also got that experience here as well. They're a very good side but I don't think anybody should be fearful of them."
There are other imperatives for Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti on Tuesday. His new first-choice attacking partnership of Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka showed some promise in Copenhagen. If he starts with those two strikers against United and Chelsea prevail, it makes life that little bit simpler for the manager when it comes to leaving out Didier Drogba.
With those tricky selection decisions, it is easier to omit a popular and influential player if the team is winning. Ancelotti has been brave enough to start without Drogba twice already – against Fulham and Copenhagen – and his Ivorian striker, with 141 career goals for Chelsea, has been publicly accepting of the decision. But it is not an easy peace to keep.
The reality is that Ancelotti has marked a major sea-change in dropping Drogba for the first time since Luiz Felipe Scolari briefly did so two years ago and for that – among other things – he paid with his job. Even Terry still seemed in some kind of denial in Copenhagen that Torres's arrival has meant that Drogba has lost his starting place. He talked about "the three of them" as if all three strikers had started.
"To play against them [Torres, Anelka and Drogba] must put the fear into defenders," Terry said. "The two guys who started, showing their pace, playing on people's shoulders, there's probably none better in the League. Didier comes on to hold it up and drag a little bit of time out of the game as well. He came on and showed the hunger, and hopefully this is the start of them all clicking together."
But the point is that they are not "clicking together". It was assumed Anelka might even be sacrificed to sign Torres, but instead he has won the immediate race to play alongside the £50m man while Drogba is reduced to a bit-part role.
Tuesday's win, the first Chelsea have managed with a side in which Torres and Anelka started, must give Ancelotti confidence to do the same against United. He can dress up Drogba's new role any way he likes – rotation, tactical – but the Ivorian is accustomed to starting the big games. For Ancelotti the priority is winning them.
The Italian is to be applauded for realising that his original compromise deal of playing all three against Liverpool in Torres's first game was a non-starter, and that he had to make a hard choice. But Ancelotti knows better than most that he can only really vindicate himself by beating United.Reuse content