Last chance for City title hopes
LONDON: Any lingering hopes Manchester City entertain of getting involved in a Premier League title race in their first full season of being bankrolled from Abu Dhabi will be extinguished if they fail to beat Chelsea on Saturday.
The league leaders arrive at Eastlands with a 14-point advantage over City, who have slipped to seventh after a run of seven consecutive draws.
It already looks like a virtually unbridgeable gap and Chelsea have acquired a distinct air of champions-elect after following up wins over Liverpool and Manchester United earlier in the season with last weekend's 3-0 victory at Arsenal.
United, who trail Chelsea by five points, travel to West Ham while Arsenal will seek to get their campaign back on track at home to Stoke.
Steven Gerrard makes his 500th appearance for Liverpool at Blackburn while third-placed Tottenham travel to Everton on Sunday.
Despite a blip in midweek, when a second string side was knocked out of the League Cup by Blackburn, the confidence in the Chelsea camp was underlined by Portugal defenderRicardo Carvalho, who described the current squad as stronger than the one which won the club's first title in 50 years in 2004-05.
Carvalho was a key figure in what was Jose Mourinho's first season in charge, during which Chelsea lost only one league match and conceded only 15 goals.
"In this moment we are an improvement even from that first year here under Mourinho," Carvalho said.
"Of course then we were compact and everyone was fighting, but now I think we have more quality in the squad maybe. Or at least different players, playing in a different system and style."
City's spirits were lifted by a 3-0 win over Arsenal in the League Cup in midweek and manager Mark Hughesinsists there is no reason for his squad to feel overly dissatisfied at being so far off the pace being set by Chelsea.
"We are at a point now where we are reasonably pleased with where we are," Hughes said. "You can't deny we are going in the right direction.
"Comparisons are always made between ourselves and Chelsea. We started from a lot further behind. We need a little bit of time."
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson must decide whether to retain Darron Gibson, who scored twice as a youthful United side beat Tottenham 2-0 in the League Cup in midweek, for the trip to West Ham.
The likes of Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs are expected to return but Ireland midfielder Gibson made a compelling case for promotion to United's first-choice line-up.
Gerrard's satisfaction at reach his personal milestone will be tinged with frustration over Liverpool's stuttering form.
"There is a lot of football to be played but Chelsea are looking really strong," the Reds captain admitted this week. "Our main target now is to get back in the top four.
"We're on the back of a fantastic win against Everton and we want to continue that against Blackburn. We were so close last season, but with virtually the same group of players we have under-achieved so far this season."
Arsenal's frustration over the way their challenge has unravelled following back-to-back defeats by Sunderlandand Chelsea has deepened after Theo Walcott was ruled out of Saturday's match with a hamstring injury.