Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti knows his first Premier League clash with Manchester United will provide the acid test of his title credentials, but he believes the champions have weaknesses that can be exploited in Sunday’s summit meeting.
Ancelotti’s side have become the top pick to win the English crown after an impressive start under the Italian suggested he has recaptured the magic missing from Stamford Bridge since Jose Mourinho’s departure.
But Ancelotti is well aware that only when he has emerged unscathed from a head to head duel with United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will he truely be able to feel like a major player in the Premier League.
The likes of Mourinho and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger earned their stripes – and Ferguson’s grudging admiration – by defeating United in individual matches and then the title race.
Now Ancelotti, whose side are two points clear of second placed United, must do the same.
While most of Ferguson’s managerial opponents will inevitably suffer from an inferiority complex when they compare their achievements with the Scot’s, Ancelotti can draw inspiration from his previous battles with United.
He has knocked Ferguson out of the Champions League twice during his time with AC Milan, with the 2007 semi-final rout at the San Siro a particularly fond memory, and has won a Community Shield penalty shoot-out against United in August.
The Blues chief believes Sunday’s match will go his way as well if Chelsea take advantage of the flaws in Ferguson’s defence and midfield.
United, who haven’t won at the Bridge since 2002, were unusually timid in their 2-0 defeat at Liverpool two weeks ago and their porous defence has conceded 11 goals already in the league this season.
And, with England defender Rio Ferdinand ruled out with a back injury, Ancelotti suspects Chelsea maybe able to expose United’s soft centre in the same way as Liverpool.
“Liverpool played a fantastic match (against United), a strong match and put a lot of pressure on. That’s why they won,” Ancelotti said.
“They didn’t give United any possibility to play like they want to play. It was a good lesson for us because Manchester can suffer when there’s pressure on their midfielders.
“I think Ferdinand is a very good defender. Without Ferdinand they lose something.
“But I don’t want to work just against other team’s weaknesses. We want to put our own qualities on the pitch.
“The best thing is to maintain a balance. They have fantastic strikers. Wayne Rooney is one of the most intelligent strikers in the world.”
Ferguson will hope the return to fitness of Serbia centre-back Nemanja Vidic shores up a defence that conceded three times against CSKA Moscow in midweek, while Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov could feature after a knee injury.
The United manager, who can point to a famous 1999 Champions League victory over Ancelotti’s Juventus as proof that he doesn’t need to fear the Italian, has seen Chelsea bosses Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink fail to overthrow United in recent years.
But he admits Ancelotti could pose the biggest threat to his supremacy since Mourinho’s departure.
“I thought Ancelotti would do well,” he said. “He was a great coach at AC Milan. He won the European Cup twice and brought a wealth of experience with him to Chelsea.
“He was also a great player so he has a lot of knowledge. He brought a different system to the ones Chelsea have used in the past.
“It has maybe been easier to adapt tactics because they have very experienced players, who have more tactical knowledge than the younger ones. It seems to have worked well.”
Even though there is plenty at stake on Sunday, Ancelotti has no intention of being an unwelcoming host and will share a bottle of red wine with Ferguson whatever the result.
“We drank red wine after we drew in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Juventus against United,” he said. “United equalised in the last minute and I was a bit angry. But after the red wine it was better!”
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