By DAVID MOSSE
Not even Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti felt his team had a shot at the Premier League crown three months back when the Blues trailed Manchester United by 10 points with 13 games remaining. And as recently as five weeks ago Chelsea appeared to have thrown away any chance of retaining the title after a 1-1 draw at Stoke, but Ancelotti's side heads to Old Trafford on Sunday in position to complete a remarkable comeback.
The Blues now trail United by three points and are level on goal difference, so any victory will see them vault past the Red Devils into first place in the league standings with just two games left. Chelsea defeated Manchester United 2-1 in the previous league encounter at Stamford Bridge, but the Red Devils responded by knocking the Blues out of the Champions League and will be buoyed by reaching the final of the competition after disposing of Schalke on Wednesday.
Brazilian defender David Luiz fired home the equalizer for Chelsea in that come-from-behind victory in March, and figures to partner John Terry in the center of defense. The question is whether Fernando Torres, who has scored only one goal for his new club and was replaced early in the second half of last week's 2-1 win over Tottenham will command a place in the starting lineup alongside Didier Drogba. Ramires, back from injury, could pop up in the midfield as well.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had the luxury of resting his starters against Schalke,and the return of Darren Fletcher gives him more options in the midfield. Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez will look to attack the Chelsea defense, while the in-form Antonio Valencia could provide inspiration from the wing. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will anchor the back-line for a United team that needs only a draw to remain in the driver's seat for another title.
Here's a look ahead to some other important matches in Europe this weekend:
Everton vs. Manchester City
European soccer next season is probably out of reach for Everton, but David Moyes' side is still very dangerous at home and will look to deal a damaging blow to Manchester City's ambitions of claiming an automatic Champions League spot. Carlos Tevez remains bothered by a hamstring injury and will almost definitely miss out, so look for Mario Balotelli to lead the attack for City, though Edin Dzeko could be in line for a start given his improved form of late.
David Silva will be counted on to provide inspiration, but he'll be hounded by Everton defenders Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka. Goalkeeper Tim Howard pulled off some incredible saves in the 1-1 draw with Wigan last time out and is capable of keeping the Toffees in any game, while much of the responsibility offensively falls on the shoulders of both Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill. Arteta actually missed a penalty last week at DW Stadium, so Moyes hopes he can bounce back.
Fulham vs. Liverpool
Both Liverpool and Fulham continued their respective climbs up the table last week following disastrous starts to the season. The Reds picked up a comfortable 3-0 victory over Newcastle thanks to another sensational performance from Luis Suarez, who is proving to be a terrific acquisition. Andy Carroll made his return after being sidelined for several weeks with a knee injury and could push for a starting spot, though Kenny Dalglish will probably repeat the same lineup.
Dirk Kuyt continues to play well, while Lucas and Raul Meireles have emerged as influential figures in the center of the park, but Liverpool, which is still within striking distance of a Champions League spot, will face a stiff challenge from a Fulham side pushing for seventh place. Simon Davies scored twice last week in the 3-0 win over Sunderland and Bobby Zamora put forth his best performance since returning from a broken leg. Clint Dempsey should be available as well.
Sevilla vs. Real Madrid
The most depressing match of any season for Real Madrid is typically the one immediately following Champions League elimination, so Jose Mourinho faces a difficult task in getting his side motivated for a trip to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, especially with the league seemingly out of reach as well. Madrid needs a victory Saturday to prevent Barcelona from clinching a third straight title with a win on Sunday, and Mourinho will likely field his strongest side.
Ricardo Carvalho is suspended after being sent off last week against Real Zaragoza, so Pepe should anchor the back-line. Look for Karim Benzema to start up front with Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil directly behind him, while Sevilla counters with Alvaro Negredo and the improving Diego Perotti. Jesus Navas remains sidelined and Frederic Kanoute is an injury doubt for Los Rojiblancos, who are fighting for a Europa spot and would love to knock off Madrid.
Barcelona vs. Espanyol
Barcelona is flying high after advancing to another Champions League Final, and Pep Guardiola's side could take the field against Espanyol on Sunday with an opportunity to clinch a third straight league title depending on Real Madrid's result in Sevilla the day before. With the Manchester United clash more than three weeks away, Guardiola will likely field his strongest lineup, which may include Frenchman Eric Abidal, who made a dramatic return on Tuesday.
Abidal has been sidelined for several months with a tumor in his liver, and the injuries to Maxwell and Adriano as well forced Guardiola to improvise at left back. With a settled back-line, and Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and David Villa all available, the Blaugrana will look to pulverize their cross-town rivals, who are battling for a Europa spot. Strikers Pablo Osvaldo and Jose Callejon offer the best hope for an upset, while midfielder Joan Verdu needs to play well for Espanyol.
AS Roma vs. AC Milan
The Rossoneri are just one point away from their first Scudetto since 2004 and will look to clinch the title at the Olimpico against an AS Roma side battling for the final Champions League spot. Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns from suspension and Alexandre Pato should be available after missing the past two league games due to injury, so manager Massimiliano Allegri must decide on the best combination up front with Antonio Cassano and Robinho also vying for places.
Roma notched a dramatic come-from-behind win over relegation-bound Bari last weekend with Francesco Totti bagging a brace before missing a penalty in the second half. Totti will lead the attack on Saturday alongside Mirko Vucinic, while Vincenzo Montella must decide on replacements for Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta, both sent off against Bari. Don't be surprised if Rodrigo Taddei is inserted into the starting lineup with David Pizarro taking on greater responsibility.
Udinese vs. Lazio
Both Lazio and Udinese suffered disappointing defeats last weekend which left the Biancocelesti one point ahead of the Friulani for the final Champions League spot. Lazio lost 1-0 in controversial
fashion to Juventus, while Udinese was blown away by Fiorentina 5-2, and the two sides now meet in Udine on Sunday. It remains to be seen whether Udinese star Alexis Sanchez will be available after missing the Fiorentina clash due to injury.
His absence would place a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of Antonio Di Natale,who is tied for the Serie A lead in goals with 26 but will be subjected to tight marking from the likes of Andres Dias and Giuseppe Biava. Lazio midfielder Cristian Ledesma misses out through suspension after being sent off against Juve, so manager Edy Reja will hope Mauro Zarate and Hernanes can provide enough inspiration for his side to come out on top in this crucial encounter.
FC St. Pauli vs. Bayern Munich
FC St. Pauli punched above its weight for much of this season, but a 10-match winless streak has seen the club sink to the bottom of the Bundesliga standings, and St. Pauli is in desperate need of a victory over Bayern Munich on Saturday to maintain any hopes of avoiding relegation. The home side will be missing eight players, so goalkeeper Thomas Kessler must come up big. Kessler was sent off in a previous encounter between the two sides in Munich.
Bayern has suffered through a miserable campaign but put forth one of its best performances ofthe season last week in a 4-1 win over Schalke. Arjen Robben was back to his devastating best,while Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger combined very well in the middle of the park. Luiz Gustavo figures to get the nod in the center of defense for a Bayern side still looking to nail down a Champions League spot. Hamit Altintop and Ivica Olic remain unavailable.
Werder Bremen vs. Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund will be in celebration mode after clinching the league title, so Werder Bremen has a golden opportunity to pick up a big victory, distancing itself from the relegation zone.Torsten Frings made his 400th Bundesliga appearance last week in a 1-0 loss to Wolfsburg, and Frings will need to be at his best for Bremen to have any chance of holding its own in the middle. Wesley will likely get the nod alongside Frings, while Claudio Pizarro leads the attack.
Dortmund took care of business at home last Saturday, knocking off Nurnberg 2-0. Lucas Barrios has been bothered by a thigh injury recently, but he found the back of the net and should cause problems for the Bremen defense. Mohamed Zidan could be inserted into the lineup ahead of Kevin Grosskreutz. Nuri Sahin remains sidelined due to injury and is in the process of negotiating a transfer to Real Madrid, so don't expect Sahin to feature in the final two games.
Who do you see winning the Chelsea-United match? What match-up are you most looking forward to seeing? What game outside of England will have your attention this weekend?
Share your thoughts below.