Having moved above Arsenal on Wednesday night to become table-topping Manchester United’s nearest title challengers, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti has thrown down the gauntlet to his players to fight in order to retain their crown as Premier League champions. With their 3-1 defeat of Birmingham securing a sixth win in seven games, the Blues appear to be peaking at the right time as the Premier League title race enters crunch time. Yet despite having reduced a 15-point deficit to the summit in February to trail by just six points with five games remaining, it would take a major wobble from Manchester United in order for the title not to head north for the 19th time.
He may have conceded defeat in the title race last weekend after his side’s 1-1 draw away to Stoke, but Ancelotti appears to have changed his opinion in the wake of an encouraging turn-around with United’s midweek slip against Newcastle coupled with consecutive wins for his team. With Sir Alex Ferguson’s men still to face third placed Arsenal at the Emirates on May 1 – a week before Chelsea travel to Old Trafford – and the added distraction of United’s attempt at European glory in the Champions League, the Blues could yet defy the odds and retain their Premier League crown, a possibility that seemed far-fetched just weeks ago.
Ancelotti challenged his players after the Birmingham game to win every remaining match in order to apply as much pressure on United as possible over the coming weeks: “Our aim is to win every game and after that see how our position is. It will not be easy but that is our aim,” the 51-year-old said. “The game is not finished but Manchester United have a fantastic advantage.” Even after winning the League and FA Cup double last season in his first term in English football, Ancelotti’s job security has been called into question after a difficult mid-season that saw the London club embroiled in their worst run for 15 years, and his continuation as Chelsea manager may yet rely on his turning the side around to lift the title at the end of the season. The costly run between November and January saw the Blues drop 21 points in 11 games, including failing to win six consecutive league games between 14 November and 27 December.
Ancelotti, of course, knows as well as anyone just how unpredictable football can be having watched his AC Milan side lose a 3-0 half-time lead in the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool to suffer a heart-breaking penalties defeat, a fact well acknowledged by the experienced Italian: “In football, I learned that everything can happen in the game right up to the final whistle. If we thought that one month ago we’d have a little chance to come back to fight for the title, I think that everyone could have said we were crazy,” he said. The Blues won the title last May with 86 points, yet only took to the top of the League after beating United 2-1 at Old Trafford in early April, a lead that they did not relinquish. Coming from behind this season would take even more clinical timing and though unlikely, the Blues title hopes still flicker yet.