LONDON, March 26 – Didier Drogba, who believes Chelsea have justifiably come in for flak in recent weeks, has warned his side they must beat Aston Villa on Saturday to maintain the pressure in the Premier League title race.Carlo Ancelotti’s men side restored confidence with the emphatic 5-0 midweek victory over basement club Portsmouth after the morale-sapping Champions League defeat by Inter Milan and subsequent draw at Blackburn.
The stalemate at Ewood Park handed the advantage to Manchester United in the title contest, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s reigning champions now sitting one point clear of Chelsea at the top of the table, having played the same number of games.
And with Chelsea due to visit Old Trafford for next weekend’s showdown between the top two, Drogba is adamant the Blues cannot afford to allow that gap to widen.
The meeting with Villa also acts as a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup semi-final between the two clubs on April 10 – but, for the moment, Chelsea’s focus is trained solely on the league.
Drogba, who expects to be fit despite limping out of the Portsmouth game after scoring twice, said: "Aston Villa is a big, big game for us. We have to forget about the Portsmouth game and start to think about Aston Villa. We have to recover quickly and make sure we’re going to be ready for the game.
"It’s just important for us to try to keep this distance (one-point gap) so we go to Old Trafford with a lot of confidence and expect something good from the squad there."
The in-form Ivory Coast striker added: "We have to concentrate on this game on Saturday and then we’ll think about Manchester United. Both games are related. Let’s do everything to win the first one and then we will have time to think about United.
"People have given us a lot of criticism recently but I think they’re fair because we haven’t played at our level."
Villa will present a much more formidable obstacle than Portsmouth and Chelsea, who harbour hopes of a league and cup double, will be without midfielder Michael Essien who has suffered a setback in his recovery from a serious knee injury and is now set to miss the rest of the season.
"I was hoping to be back available for the home game against Inter but the healing has taken a bit longer than expected because my knee kept swelling up," said Essien.
"In two weeks I ended up having four lots of surgery to try and get the fluid away from the area. Finally it seems to be okay and I am making progress. I know I just have to be patient and give it time to settle down and heal."
Villa’s principal target is to finish fourth and claim a place in next season’s Champions League.
Martin O’Neill’s side are four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with eight games remaining and, after drawing with Sunderland midweek, can ill afford another slip-up.
Villa’s England winger Stewart Downing believes the race for fourth is far from over and is convinced the two meetings with Chelsea present a huge opportunity for the Midlands club.
"There will be no slacking from us," he said. "We are doing everything we can every game and this might be the one we get a result in."
He added: There are a few teams up and down at the minute. There are a lot of twists and turns still to go and we’ve still got to play Everton and Manchester City, teams around us, so I think it will go to the wire."