Chelsea out to end slump
London – The English Premier League summit increasingly out of sight, Chelsea's priority now is avoiding sliding out of the top four.
A loss at Newcastle last weekend after a draw against Reading has seen Chelsea's grip on third place loosened considerably.
Tottenham is just a point behind and can dislodge Chelsea by beating Newcastle on Saturday if their faltering London rivals lose to Wigan.
Chelsea's prospects of halting a four-game winless run – including two cup draws – aren't helped by injuries to two key players: Goalkeeper Petr Cech has broken a finger, and striker Demba Ba has broken his nose.
There could however, be better news about Frank Lampard's future.
The midfielder had been told he was surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge after this season, but each goal and influential display for Chelsea and England has made that decision seem all the more perplexing.
As Chelsea's fortunes have faltered, fan discontent – already rising over the interim appointment of Rafa Benitez as manager – has fermented by the apparent disregard for Lampard's importance to the team.
Even at 34, Lampard has provided 10 goals from midfield in the Premier League – twice as many as star striker Fernando Torres.
The Daily Mail newspaper reported on Thursday that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was considering offering Lampard a one-year contract extension, a report the club declined to comment on.
That report emerged after Lampard netted England's match-winner against Brazil on Wednesday.
“Lamps has been doing that for years, and he just seems to keep doing it,” said Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere.
Arsenal are also seeing their Premier League title aspirations slip away.
But the 21-year-old Wilshere's influential display for England against Brazil will provide encouragement that sixth-placed Arsenal can still rise up the standings, starting on Saturday against Sunderland.
“He is a fantastic player,” Lampard said. “He's got quality on the ball, technical ability and the speed to get away from people. He's going to be a massive player.”
At the top, Manchester United are running away with the title, sitting nine points ahead of Manchester City, and their pursuit of a record-extending 20th league title seems unstoppable.
“You hope that the players realise that the league is there for them (to win),” United manager Alex Ferguson said. “It's obviously a big challenge and we've got the FA Cup and the Champions League as well, and managing the squad is going to be important when it comes to picking the right teams.
“That's down to myself and the staff. It's always an important time. The players have shown great appetite for it.”
On Sunday, United host Everton, who are riding high in fifth place – three points behind Tottenham in the last Champions League place ahead of the London's club match against Newcastle on Saturday.
City are also in action on Saturday, wanting a victory against Southampton after two successive draws.
“Last year we recovered eight points in the last six games,” City manager Roberto Mancini said. “It is not finished.”
At the wrong end of the standings, bottom-place Queens Park Rangers are at Swansea on Saturday, when relegation-threatened Wigan [lay Chelsea.
Aston Villa, who are four points ahead of QPR but only above Wigan on goal difference, host West Ham on Sunday.
Reading, who are two points above Wigan, are at Stoke on Saturday when Norwich play Fulham. – Sapa-AP