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English Premiership

Blues to miss African troops

HULL, January 8 – Life starts to get a little harder for Chelsea this weekend as the Premier League leaders face the first significant test of their ability to cope without their quartet of players who have headed off to the African Nations Cup.Carlo Ancelotti’s side are unbeaten in seven matches in all competitions, but must now face up to life without Ivory Coast pair Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, Nigerian John Obi Mikel and Ghana midfielder Michael Essien.

They coped easily without the foursome against Championship side Watford in the FA Cup last time out, cruising to a 5-0 victory, but Saturday’s league trip to Hull is expected to be far tougher.

The outcome will be used as a marker of whether the Blues do have the strength in depth to make it through the remainder of the month without bringing in new signings.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti has confidence in his side but will have to put much of his faith in French forward Nicolas Anelka, who has scored five times in the league so far.

He is likely to start in attack with Daniel Sturridge, who scored twice in the win over Watford, and Anelka realises there is a weight of expectation on his shoulders to find the goals that Drogba would have been expected to deliver.

Much of this season he has played in a support role, and it is possible that Sturridge will occupy a central striker position in order to allow Anelka to thrive.

"We are still first in the league and we will try our best to stay there," Anelka said.

"I wanted to play this position when I first came to Chelsea, with Didier in front and me just behind. I always said that.

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"This season, the manager gave me the chance to do it – to be free on the pitch – and I feel good.

"It gives me the chance to have some versatility and that is why I do what I do. Not a lot of people knew I could do this."

Chelsea’s main injury concerns are Portuguese midfield player Deco, who has a groin strain, and a knee injury to full-back Jose Bosingwa.

Hull will be attempting to end a seven-match winless run in all competitions.

The Tigers have failed to win a game since beating Everton 3-2 at the end of November, although their fightback in a 2-2 draw at Bolton Wanderers recently proved they are hungry to move away from the relegation zone.

Bad weather has played havoc with their training schedule ahead of this enounter, though.

"Preparation has been very, very difficult, but the lads have enjoyed it because it can be a break from the mundane training sessions," manager Phil Brown said.

"Chelsea are a formidable outfit. They don’t have Drogba and a few others, but they can bring in Nicolas Anelka and Daniel Sturridge, who has really impressed me.

"So that is the size of the challenge we face, but we are at home and must put our best foot forward to make sure we play to our full potential and put last week’s result behind us by getting a positive one here."

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Hull have won only four of their 20 league matches, and are still without Jimmy Bullard, who has been sidelined since limping out of last month’s defeat at Aston Villa.

He has shown signs of improvement and hopes to make a return against Wolves at the end of January – a date that can not come soon enough for manager Brown.

"He’s on target. When he got injured we hoped he would play some part in January, and that is still the case," the manager added.

Seyi Olofinjana is on international duty with Nigeria as is Daniel Cousin with Gabon. Ian Ashbee (knee) remains unavailable, while Dean Marney is battling to overcome a calf problem.

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