Chelsea aim to extend lead

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> Chelsea can cement their position on top of the Premier League with a win over Birmingham on Saturday.

Updated: December 25, 2009 17:01 IST
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Chelsea can cement their position on top of the Premier League with a win over Birmingham on Saturday, while new Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini gets his first taste of English football against Stoke.

With second-placed Manchester United not in action until Sunday's clash at Hull, Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea will move seven points clear of the reigning champions if they can defeat Birmingham at St Andrews.

But Ancelotti, whose team have spluttered of late, would be wise not to take Birmingham for granted.

While Chelsea have looked surprisingly vulnerable during a run of one win in six matches in all competitions, Birmingham have risen to seventh place on the back of a nine-match unbeaten run.

Ancelotti, who will be without injured France striker Nicolas Anelka, needs a big performance from Didier Drogba after the Ivory Coast striker's anonymous effort in last weekend's 1-1 draw at West Ham as he will be making his last appearance before flying off to the African Nations Cup.

"Birmingham have had five consecutive victories and a draw," Ancelotti said.

"Above all, it's difficult to play up there. They put a lot of pressure on and we'll have to pay attention."

While Ancelotti looks for the solution to Chelsea's recent inconsistency, his compatriot Mancini will hope for an early sign that there is no dressing room dissent over his appointment.

Several of City's players including Craig Bellamy and Shay Given were reported to be unhappy that Mark Hughes was sacked to make way for former Inter Milan coach Mancini.

Hughes was dismissed despite losing just two league matches this season, so Mancini will know that only instant success will satisfy the club's Abu Dhabi based owners.

But the former Italy forward, who has only been at City for a week, said: "I thought the players trained very well. I think I have a good team and we have only one problem and that is many players injured.

"I have a good relationship with the players. I appreciate some players are close to Mark but that is a good thing for a manager."

Rafael Benitez is another manager under close scrutiny this weekend after Liverpool's woeful 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth last Saturday left them eight points behind fourth-placed Aston Villa.

Missing out on a spot in the Champions League would leave Benitez in severe danger of losing his job and Spaniard, whose side host Wolves, acknowledges things must change soon.

"I must manage and control the anxiety of the players, and the anxiety of the fans," Benitez said.

"We know we have to change the situation, sooner rather than later. That is clear.

"If we talk too much about having to win a title, or win a cup, it just makes things worse. We must help our players by making them concentrate on the next match and winning it."

Liverpool's poor form has given Villa and Tottenham hope of snatching one of those lucrative top four spots.

Villa, who have already beaten United, Liverpool and Chelsea this season, go in search of a big four cleansweep at Arsenal on Sunday.

Tottenham travel across London to face Fulham, who thrashed United 3-0 last weekend.

That loss was the lowest moment for United in an erratic campaign marred by injuries to a host of defenders.

Sir Alex Ferguson hopes to have Nemanja Vidic or Wes Brown back at Hull on Sunday, but he knows the hosts will go on the attack in an attempt to exploit United's weakness at the back.

"Hull will be encouraged by the fact we have these defenders injured. They will certainly have a go at us," Ferguson said.

Fixtures (1500GMT unless stated)


Birmingham v Chelsea (1245GMT), Burnley v Bolton (1400GMT), Fulham v Tottenham (1300GMT), Liverpool v Wolverhampton (1730GMT), Man City v Stoke, Sunderland v Everton, West Ham v Portsmouth (1300GMT), Wigan v Blackburn


Arsenal v Aston Villa (1330GMT), Hull v Man Utd (1600GMT)

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