Carlo Ancelotti yesterday admitted Chelsea’s encounter with Manchester City tomorrow will probably prove decisive in their Barclays Premier League season.
Victory would see the champions leapfrog City into third place and would also maintain their outside hopes of retaining the championship.
But defeat would surely kill off their title chances while also putting qualification for next season’s Champions League – via a league placing – back in doubt.
Ancelotti said: It’s important we win to clarify our position in the table.
“At the moment, our position is not so clear. After this game, it’ll be clear what we’re going to do in the Premier League.”
The same could be said for City, who arguably must also win tomorrow to keep their dwindling title hopes alive.
And they have every reason to think they can, having proven to be Chelsea’s bogey team since Ancelotti took charge, winning their last three games against the Londoners.
“I don’t remember this,” Ancelotti joked.
“I think that all three games we lost on counter-attacks. City will try to do the same now.
“They are very dangerous on the counter-attack, so we have to avoid this and maintain good balance on the pitch.”
City manager Roberto Mancini became his fellow Italian’s nemesis towards the end of the pair’s time in charge of AC Milan and Inter Milan, respectively, and has now won five of the last six head-to-head clashes between them.
“He’s a very intelligent coach who prepares a tactical game very well,” Ancelotti said.
“That’s the reason I have difficulty against him. I hope to change that on Sunday.”
Ancelotti and Mancini have a friendship dating back to their playing careers.
“We were team-mates in the national team – he’s a friend,” Ancelotti said.
“Not such a friend because he’s won too many times against me.
“He has to understand that he is my friend, so sometimes he can give his friend something.”
With Chelsea and City boasting the biggest-spending owners in English football, Ancelotti and Mancini are arguably the most under-pressure managers in the country.
Ancelotti said: “This is normal, managing that pressure, for the coach.
“It’s one of the skills a coach must have in football.
“The second thing is to be patient, not just with the players but with the club and the journalists.
“It’s a good skill to have, patience, a very good skill.”
Patience is something Ancelotti appears to have in abundance judging by the way he has handled what has proven a turbulent season at Stamford Bridge.
His latest in a long line of problems is the goal drought being suffered by record signing Fernando Torres, who has now gone six matches without scoring since his £50m move from Liverpool.
Didier Drogba has also failed to find the net for nine games but Ancelotti revealed that was nothing compared to the famine endured by Hernan Crespo while he was in charge of Milan.
“I kept Crespo for six months without him scoring,” the Italian said, reiterating he did not demand that his strikers find the net. “I never said to them, ‘You have to score’. The team has to score.
“The strikers are involved because they’re closer to goal, but it’s important they work well, move well and open the space for the midfielders.”
Torres will be handed another chance to break his duck tomorrow but Ancelotti refused to reveal who would partner the Spaniard.
David Luiz will regain his place at the heart of defence after being cup-tied for Wednesday night’s Champions League last-16 second leg against FC Copenhagen, meaning Ancelotti must decide whether to rest Branislav Ivanovic or switch him to right-back.
Andriy Shevchenko, who failed to replicate the kind of form at Chelsea that made him such a respected figure with AC Milan and throughout Europe, has suggested Torres should relax to start the goals flowing.
Shevchenko, 34, managed only nine goals in 47 appearances for Chelsea, and knows the pressure Torres is under after he left Liverpool in January.
Shevchenko said: “Chelsea play a different game to Liverpool. You need time to adapt.
“Everyone is looking at him because the price of the transfer is very high. In England everyone puts a lot of pressure on him. He is a big player, a big name and goals will come.
“He needs to keep believing in himself and keep calm. I know he will be working hard. Maybe it is best he does not think about scoring.”
Shevchenko left Chelsea to rejoin Milan on loan before returning home to Dynamo Kiev, where he started out.
The Ukrainian scored in the first leg of the 2-1 aggregate Europa Leage victory over Manchester City.
Shevchenko retains a soft spot for Chelsea, and added: “I hope they play well and win as it is an important game for both sides.”