LONDON (AP) — With Wayne Rooney back from injury in time for Manchester United’s trip to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea couldn’t have picked a worse time to be without two of its star defenders for Sunday’s important match in the Premier League title race.
On the same day John Terry was removed as England captain while he awaits trial in July on charges of racially abusing an opponent, the center back was ruled out on Friday of United’s visit and probably next weekend’s match at Everton too with a knee injury.
With England teammate Ashley Cole also suspended following his red card against Swansea on Tuesday, fourth-place Chelsea is already facing an uphill battle to secure a victory that would trim the gap to United to nine points.
“John Terry is the captain, a leader on the pitch and off it and he is a great player so we will miss him of course,” Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas said.
“We are missing Ashley as well and those two players are in the top four of most-used players. But we cannot be crying out when we miss players … we have a very big squad which enables to us to approach the game with belief.”
Rooney is one of four high-profile players set for comebacks from injury this weekend for United, which has won its last three matches to move level with Manchester City at the top of the standings.
United manager Alex Ferguson may also recall central midfielder Tom Cleverley and wingers Nani and Ashley Young.
Rooney and Nani have been training for two days after recovering from injuries sustained in the Jan. 22 win at Arsenal. Young has been out since December and Cleverley has been out since October.
“We’ve done very well away from home this season and we need to be good from now on,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got some really important away games in the run-in — Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City. They’re going to be crucial games.”
Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is out of action for as long as six weeks because of an ankle injury, leaving David De Gea likely to start and Ben Amos set to fill in on the bench.
United — unlike regular top-four rivals Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool — has no worries over whether it will qualify for next season’s Champions League.
The defending champions have won five of their last six meetings with Chelsea but the Blues won the other match in that sequence 2-1 in last season’s corresponding fixture.
Third-place Tottenham is seven points ahead of Chelsea, which is hanging onto the fourth and final Champions League qualifying spot ahead of challenges from Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Fifth-place Newcastle hosts Aston Villa in Sunday’s other match.
Manchester City hosts Fulham in one of seven games Saturday, with Tottenham at Liverpool on Monday.
City will again be without striker Mario Balotelli because of suspension and Ivory Coast duo Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure because of their participation at the African Cup of Nations.
David Pizarro, signed on loan from Roma this week, is in contention to make his debut and defensive duo Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards should play despite minor fitness problems.
“We had this problem with some players away,” City manager Roberto Mancini said. “We had this chance with David on loan from Roma and it was good for us because I know the player. I think that could be useful for us in the next four months.”
Louis Saha could be in for a hot reception at Anfield, having just left Everton in time to make his Tottenham debut against his old club’s biggest rival.
With Jermain Defoe, Rafael van der Vaart and Emmanuel Adebayor all in doubt for the match because of injury, the 33-year-old Saha is hoping he gets the chance to add to the single Premier League goal he scored for Everton this season.
“I see many opportunities with the midfielders, the wingers, and the way the team plays here, so I just can’t wait to get started,” Saha said. “It’s a very attacking side and they always look for movement of the striker.”