LONDON — Having emerged as Manchester United’s most credible challenger for the English title, in-form Chelsea looks to have regained its early-season swagger ahead of Saturday’s home match against struggling West Ham.
With the defence looking tighter and Didier Drogba back to his destructive best in attack, a late tilt at the title could be on for the reigning champions, who have moved into second and are six points behind United with five matches left.
While the leaders face what could prove to be a tough test at home to a buoyant Everton on Saturday, Chelsea will be confident of seeing off a West Ham side that is second from bottom and on a three-match losing run.
“To win the title, we’ll need less points than last season,” said Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, whose team has won six of its last seven league games. “We won it with 86 last season. Now, with 80 points, United can win the title. They need 10 points.
“We’ve reached second place. We wait to see what happens in the next five games.”
Third-place Arsenal, the other side in title contention, visits Bolton on Sunday but an inability to protect leads has cost the Gunners four points over the past week, further draining away confidence. They are level on points with Chelsea, which has the kind of momentum that is vital in the run-in.
Ancelotti is widely expected to be dismissed this summer, with Chelsea knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage and likely to finish the season without silverware despite its barnstorming first three months of the campaign.
A dramatic defence of the title could yet change the mind of club owner Roman Abramovich and for that to happen, Ancelotti may decide to persevere with Drogba up front over record signing Fernando Torres, who has yet to score since his move from Liverpool for 50 million pounds (then $81 million) on Jan. 31.
The Spain striker has been dropped to the bench for the last two matches, which has seen Chelsea beat both West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham 3-1 — with Drogba heavily involved in all six goals.
The Ivory Coast star looks back to his best after recovering from a bout of malaria midway through the season.
“He has a strong personality. He knew that with malaria, he didn’t play his best,” Ancelotti said. “I think that now he’s fit and he’s showing fantastic quality.
“In one season, problems like Didier had can happen. We couldn’t do anything about this. Now we have to be happy to see him playing fantastic football.”
United, which drew 0-0 at Newcastle on Tuesday, has a difficult run of fixtures starting with a match against Everton, which is unbeaten in the league in two months despite having a lengthy injury list to contend with.
Alex Ferguson’s side then has back-to-back league games against Arsenal then Chelsea, with a two-legged Champions League semifinal against Schalke thrown in for good measure.
“We are still in a good position,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said. “We have got tough games ahead, but they (Arsenal and Chelsea) have got tough games, too.
“We just roll on. This is what we want to be doing, playing in the big games coming thick and fast.”
In an increasingly fraught fight to avoid the drop, bottom side Wolverhampton Wanderers hosts Fulham and third-bottom Blackpool, which slipped into the relegation zone last weekend for the first time this season, is at home to Newcastle.
One point separates Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves, with Wigan a point further ahead and facing a trip to struggling Sunderland on Saturday.
Other games that day see Liverpool host Birmingham, fifth-place Tottenham at home to West Brom and Stoke travel to Aston Villa.