Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, believes Chelsea could still have a say in the Premier League title race despite the club's problems and change of management. Rafael Benitez has taken charge at Stamford Bridge, starting his reign with successive goalless draws, including one against Mancini's defending champions.
The appointment of the Spaniard has also been met by disapproval from large sections of Chelsea supporters and the mid-week fixtures saw their club fall seven points behind current league leaders Manchester United. However, Mancini, whose side go into the weekend fixtures with a six-point cushion over third-place Chelsea, is not yet ready to count them out of the title race.
"I don't think it is a two-horse race," said Mancini. "Because also we are near the top, but it is difficult to say this because the season is long and in February, when we start the Champions League, everything can change. I think Chelsea could win the league.
"At this moment, I think there are three teams. But I repeat we have another 25, 26 games. It is too long to say. Last year, in six games we recover eight points. Teams like Tottenham and Arsenal can recover these points in the next 25 games, but it is difficult to say this now."
Meanwhile, Mancini has admitted that he fears losing three of his first-team squad to international duty for the Africa Cup of Nations, which takes place in South Africa from 19 January to 10 February. The Côte d'Ivoire are expected to call up brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure, plus City fringe player Abdul Razak, for the tournament.
"If we lost Yaya and Kolo and maybe Abdul - who has not played a lot of games here, but maybe in January could be important - if we have two or three players injured and we don't have other players, I hope that they don't go to this competition," he said. "We talk and we need to talk more with their (international) manager, but it is difficult."
Mancini has been impressed by his club's recent defensive form, following a run that has seen them concede just one goal in their last six league games.The sequence has coincided with young Serbian defender Matija Nastasic performing so well at centre-back that he has kept England's Joleon Lescott out of the line-up.
"When people said you concede a lot of goals, we concede a lot in the Champions League, maybe," said Mancini. "In the Premier League, after six or seven games we conceded maybe two goals more than last year, not ten. But it's clear, at this moment, we are working better but this is because all the team is working in the defensive phase.
"I am happy because Nastasic is young. He needs to work hard because it is not enough to play ten games in Premier League. He needs more games but I think he has a fantastic quality. For the future of Man City, I think that he will be an important player because he is young."
Mancini also revealed that England midfielder James Milner faces a race to be fit in time to play a part in the much-awaited Manchester derby, which takes place at the Etihad Stadium a week on Sunday. Milner was injured after scoring a goal in the mid-week victory at Wigan Athletic and is already considered a doubt for the meeting with United.
"We try to recover him for next Sunday but we don't know," said Mancini. "He was upset on Wednesday, but that is normal. He played against Chelsea and played very well. He came back after injury, now he played 20 minutes and had a hamstring (injury). We are disappointed because James was in good form in this moment."