WOLVERHAMPTON, February 19 – Joe Cole will receive an early indication of how prominently he figures in Carlo Ancelotti's long-term plans when Chelsea face Wolves this weekend.
The midfielder’s contract expires at the end of the season and his withdrawal mid-way through last weekend’s FA Cup win over Cardiff meant that, briefly at least, the England man’s future shifted focus away from the ongoing allegations over the private lives of team-mates John Terry and Ashley Cole.
Negotiations have ground to a halt and Cole is now free to talk to other teams, which opens up the possibility he could sign a pre-contract agreement with one of the Premier League leaders’ title rivals.
English champions Manchester United are believed to be monitoring the situation closely, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson reportedly interested in signing Joe Cole as a replacement for the ageing Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Ancelotti remains upbeat about the prospects of the former West Ham star staying with the London club although the player is still to hit top form this season following his return from a serious knee injury.
Cole, though, wasn’t the only Chelsea player to displease his manager against Cardiff when, according to midfielder John Obi Mikel, Ancelotti delivered his fiercest team talk yet.
Chelsea went on to win comfortably to continue their outstanding home record, but the game came just days after they had lost at Everton, allowing United to close the gap to just one point.
The Blues have now lost four league games away from home, and while Ancelotti will be confident his side can claim three points against a struggling Wolves side, their recent wobbles will ensure Chelsea travel to Molineux with a few nerves.
Terry returns to the side after being given a leave of absence to miss the Cardiff game and join his wife in Dubai following newspaper allegations about his relationship with Vanessa Perroncel, the former girlfriend of England colleague Wayne Bridge.
Striker Didier Drogba will hope to continue the current run that has brought four goals in four games since his return from the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Ivorian hitman has been shortlisted for the African Player of the Year award after settling his differences with the African Football Confederation (CAF) over his non-attendance at a previous awards ceremony.
"That was the past," said Drogba. "We all sat down and spoke about it — Mr Hayatou (the CAF president) and the people from the Ivory Coast Federation — so I think everything is good now.
"It is a good trophy and a big honour for a player to win it, especially this year which is so special for the African continent."
Meanwhile Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, is convinced the gap between teams at either end of the league table is closing.
Wolves were fined this week for fielding a weakened side at Manchester United but McCarthy believes his players are learning rapidly and are capable of shocking Chelsea.
"I think that’s because of the results the top four, or top six, have had against the rest of the league," he said.
"There is a sense throughout the league that teams just aren’t invincible anymore. Do you know, I don’t think it is because Chelsea, Manchester United and the rest are any worse.
"I just think that maybe the rest of us have got a little bit better, a little bit more streetwise and players know how to nick a result off them."