Chelsea is top of the Premier League and has already secured a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League, but the pressure is building on manager Carlo Ancelotti ahead of Tuesday’s Group F home match against Zilina.
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The Blues are in a mini-slump, having lost three of their last four matches in the English league, while there have also been changes in the club’s coaching staff with assistant manager Ray Wilkins replaced by Michael Emenalo.
The match against Zilina is as much about Chelsea regaining some confidence as it is about picking up at least a point to secure top spot in the group with one match remaining.
"I am prepared for criticism and this is the life of the coach," said Ancelotti, who on Monday denied widespread reports in the British media that he has considered quitting the English champions. "When the team doesn’t win, there is more responsibility on the coach but this is normal. This is my job for the team.
"I am not having good results so it is normal to have more responsibility, but I do not have a problem with the supporters and I have no problem with this. It is very difficult every year and you have to move on from a difficult moment."
British newspapers had reported that Ancelotti was on the verge of leaving Chelsea because he felt his authority was being undermined by Wilkins’s sudden departure.
The Italian manager stressed all the speculation was wide of the mark, saying: "These rumors are totally untrue. I’ve said a lot of times I like to stay here. I love this club. My aim is to stay here for a long time."
On the pitch, Chelsea is beginning to stutter after a stunning start to the season, during which the team was watertight at the back and unstoppable going forward.
Goals have dried up, at least in the Premier League, and the defense has not looked as solid as usual in recent games. John Terry is sidelined with a long-standing nerve problem that is affecting his leg and back, while center-back partner Alex has been playing even though he requires knee surgery.
The Brazil international will be rested against Zilina, and with qualification assured, Ancelotti said he will give starts to young midfielder Josh McEachran, center back Jeffrey Bruma and goalkeeper Ross Turnbull.
Michael Essien (toe) and Yuri Zhirkov (calf) have joined Terry and Frank Lampard (abductor) on the injury list, while defensive midfielder John Obi Mikel may only make the bench because of a knee problem.
Chelsea has been perfect in the Champions League and its 4-1 victory over Spartak Moscow at Stamford Bridge three weeks ago secured a place in the next round with two matches left. Zilina, which was thrashed 7-0 by Marseille on matchday 4, is still without a point.
"I don’t care at all about (Chelsea’s recent form). Chelsea is a giant, a team of fantastic players who are the best in the world," Zilina coach Pavel Hapal said.
In the group’s other match, Spartak Moscow hosts Marseille, with both clubs on six points apiece – six behind Chelsea.
Spartak opened the group with two victories – including a 1-0 win at Marseille – before back-to-back losses to Chelsea.
"Marseille has gained its form and is a much stronger team now than it was at the beginning of the season in September," Spartak coach Valery Karpin said. "They were somewhere at the bottom of the standings and now are a couple of points behind the leader."
Spartak is winless in its four last matches and is fourth place in the league standings with one game left in the season.
"This will be the key match of the season for us," Karpin said. "And though a draw on Tuesday will be enough for us, we do not want to put off the decision on the last game with Zilina. We will play to win tomorrow. It will be a tough game but we will not play for a draw.
"A win tomorrow will be a pass through to the next stage for both teams," said Spartak Brazilian midfielder Ibson. "We are professionals and will do our best to forget Saturday’s loss to CSKA. We will be ready for our most important game this season.
Spartak will be without injured defenders Andrei Ivanov and Sergei Parshivlyuk, while attacking midfielder Alex, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since Nov. 8, is also a doubt.