Chelsea in poor form ahead of trip to Newcastle
Premier League leader Chelsea heads to Newcastle on Sunday looking to bounce back from a run of three defeats in four matches which has allowed the chasing pack to close in on the defending champions.
The London club has lost to Liverpool, Sunderland and Birmingham in the space of 14 days and the pressure is increasing on manager Carlo Ancelotti, who was forced Monday to deny reports he was considering resigning in a dispute over control of the team.
The Blues' once-commanding five-point cushion has been gradually eroded, with Manchester United now alongside them on 28 points and both Arsenal and Manchester City within striking distance.
Chelsea is still top, however, and after resting key players in the 2-1 win over Zilina in the Champions League on Tuesday, the team should be fresh for the trip to St James' Park.
"There are periods where everything doesn't go as you want, and now is that period," said Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou, who could start against Newcastle after making a game-changing appearance off the bench against Zilina.
"We are still first in the Premier League and Champions League (and) you won't win every game, so the most important thing is to focus on the next game and try to win it. Newcastle away is tough but we have the confidence back and know we can win the game."
The likes of left back Ashley Cole, goalkeeper Petr Cech, center back Alex and striker Nicolas Anelka should return for Chelsea against Newcastle, which is 10th in the table.
United hosts Blackburn at Old Trafford on Saturday, with fit-again striker Wayne Rooney again set to start after scoring a late winner from the penalty spot in a 1-0 victory against Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday.
The England international played the full 90 minutes at Ibrox in his first start for his club in two months and improved as the game went on.
"Hopefully I can go on a goalscoring run now but really I am just delighted to be back playing again," said Rooney, who has only netted twice for United this season - both from penalties. "I felt good. I felt fit throughout the game. I want to build on this performance and this goal."
United manager Alex Ferguson will recall center backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand and will have to decide whether to stick with out-of-form Dimitar Berbatov up front. The former Bulgaria striker started against Rangers but was dropped from the squad completely for last Saturday's 2-0 win over Wigan.
Arsenal, like United, could provisionally overtake Chelsea in the standings as it also plays on Saturday - a day before the Blues.
The Gunners are away to Aston Villa and bidding to avoid a third defeat in a week, having lost 3-2 to fierce local rival Tottenham in the league last weekend and 2-0 to Braga in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Arsene Wenger's side will be without captain and midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who is out for two weeks with a hamstring strain sustained against Braga, and will be up against former winger Robert Pires, who last week joined Villa until the end of the season.
"He is the type of player who can help any team in the Premier League," Wenger said of Pires, who spent six years at Arsenal until 2006 and had been training with the north London club before signing for Villa. "Just at that age, it is important you use him well at the right moment."
Elsewhere Saturday, fourth-place City is at Stoke, which has won its last three matches in the league, fifth-place Bolton hosts Blackpool and bottom-place West Ham is at home to Wigan, which is third from bottom.
Everton hosts West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham travels to Fulham and Sunderland goes to second-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers.
In Sunday's other game, sixth-place Tottenham hosts Liverpool.