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Pressure reaches boiling point as Chelsea look to reclaim top-spot

rory delap

By Joe Carroll.

The Premier League title race has heated up once again this weekend with Chelsea aiming to reclaim their one point advantage when Stoke City visit Stamford Bridge this afternoon.

Chelsea currently find themselves two points adrift of leaders Manchester United who turned on the style yesterday to overcome an in-form Tottenham side by three goals to one- the same side that had recorded victories over the Premier League’s other championship hopefuls, Arsenal and Chelsea.

With the focus firmly on Chelsea this afternoon, Carlo Ancelotti will be hoping for nothing less than a victory which would see them wrestle United from their Premier League perch.  After last weeks no-show against Tottenham, there are signs of worry breaking through into the Chelsea ranks ahead of the arrival of a Tony Pulis side who will look to inflict more heat upon the Chelsea pressure cooker. They may not be appreciated for their route one style of football; a style with as much subtlety as a fox inside a hen-house, but you can’t argue that Rory Delap’s long throw volleys have proved successful at frustrating opposition and winning football matches.

And it just so seems that they frustrate the big teams more than anyone; the likes of Chelsea who like to play a slick and fluid passing game.  FA Cup victories over Arsenal and Manchester City are testament to this and Pulis will relish the chance to return to Stamford Bridge- the scene of an impressive display which brought their FA Cup run to an end, but where Chelsea were made to work very, very hard for their place in the next round.

Chelsea boss Ancelotti was typically cool when asked whether his team were under pressure, responding:

“I think the players feel the pressure now because they are very close to winning the title,” said Ancelotti.

“I’m not worried because I know football very well.  At the end of the season it is always like this. You have to reach your target.”

Ancelotti’s words were spoken prior to United reclaiming first place yesterday, but I doubt the laid back Italian would have made much change to his answer if it were being asked with him knowing his side were two points adrift of the 18 time league winners.  There have been many a point during the course of the season where Chelsea have looked unsure of themselves.  However the Italian has never shirked the responsibility of steadying the ship.

After their loss to Man City in December, Ancelotti took his side on an impressive run that saw them lose just once in 16 games; a 2-1 reverse to Everton in February.  A few weeks later they found themselves mercilessly dumped out of the Champions League by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan but again hit top form and put together a run that saw them win five games on the bounce, culminating in last Sunday’s disappointing 2-1 defeat at White Hart Lane.

It seems the former AC Milan coach is no stranger to adversity, and more importantly for fans taking their seat at the Bridge this afternoon, it appears that he is adept at overcoming it.  His tactics have been close to flawless in this, his first season in the Chelsea hot-seat, and if it were not for certain players getting a little too hot-headed last weekend then the Italian may well have been able to give Chelsea fans a more comfortable finish to the 09/10 campaign.

Chelsea captain John Terry found himself cooling down early last week as he was dismissed for two rash challenges that each warranted a yellow card.  At this stage of the season Chelsea cannot afford their top players to be seeing red and tomorrow’s challenge against a robust Stoke will require old heads who can keep their cool.  Terry will miss this afternoon’s encounter- an encounter in which Terry’s aerial presence and assuredness will be sorely missed.

A combination of gritty determination and the usual fast-flowing football that we so often see at the Bridge should be enough to see off the bombardment that Stoke will quite literally thrown their way. Their defence will need to be resolute and goalkeeper Petr Cech will need to show confidence in repelling Delap’s deep throw-ins.  But I am sure Ancelotti will not want to concern his team too much with the opposition.  If the Blues play to their strengths then the outcome will take care of itself and Chelsea should find themselves one point ahead of United in the desperate race across the line.

The pot serving the dash to the finish is bubbling up just in time for an exciting finish, and three points for Chelsea this afternoon will ensure they rustle up something worth celebrating come May 15th.

Team News:

Chelsea: Terry is suspended after his dismissal against Tottenham, but the return of Ashley Cole to the team after two months on the sidelines will give the Blues a boost, although he may not be risked.  John Obi Mikel will miss the game with an ankle injury, while Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho remain long term absentees.

Stoke City: Central defender Ryan Shawcross is expected to make the squad for this afternoon’s game after returning from an ankle injury.  The Potteries will be hoping to have the duo of Matthew Etherington and Mamady Sidebe available after respective knee and groin problems.  Salif Diao and Ricardo Fuller are doubts but may well be risked.

Possible Line-Ups:

Chelsea: Cech, Zhirkov, Alex, Ivanovic, Ferreira, Malouda, Lampard, Deco, J. Cole, Kalou, Drogba.

Stoke: Sorenson, Higginbotham, Shawcross, Collins, Huth, Delap, Whitehead, Whelan, Etherington, Fuller, Kitson.

How will Terry’s absence against Stoke affect the team?…Do Chelsea have enough to cope with the pressure?…please leave your comments below…

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