LONDON // It has been one of the most unpredictable, enthralling and perhaps unfathomable seasons in living memory, but surely the 2010 Premier League title race has seen its final twist after Chelsea returned to the top with only two games to go following an outstanding performance against Stoke at Stamford Bridge. At times during the campaign, it has appeared as though nobody wanted to win the title, but Carlo Ancelotti's side finally seized the initiative with a 7-0 victory that was ruthless, exhilarating and potentially definitive.
The result, secured by a hat-trick from unsung hero Salomon Kalou, two goals from the ever-consistent Frank Lampard and one each from Daniel Sturridge and Florent Malouda, means Chelsea go into the final two matches of the season one point ahead of United and with an eight-goal superior goal difference. In fact, it could all be over next Sunday if Chelsea win against Liverpool at Anfield and United fail to follow suit at Sunderland.
No wonder Ancelotti was delighted as he assessed his team's performance and their title hopes. "The most important thing is the destiny is in our hands. I am very calm, very quiet because our destiny is ours. We are very close," he said. "I know if we win two games we are champions and I am very happy. There was a bit of pressure on us before the game but from the beginning the team was focused and produced a fantastic performance."
The prospect of a title showdown at Anfield against a Liverpool side who desperately need victory to remain in contention for fourth place is a mouth-watering one and on yesterday's form Chelsea will go into it as favourites. "We have scored a lot of goals this season in the Premier League. But it won't come down to goal difference to decide it," added Ancelotti. "There will be one team that arrives in first place and another who arrives in second place.
"It will be very difficult at Liverpool. But it is in our hands. Liverpool are a fantastic team still going for fourth place. It's ours to lose." They may have collapsed to defeat at Tottenham only a week ago following an inexplicably poor performance, but they played like champions against Stoke and were convincing victors just 24 hours after title rivals United had beaten Spurs at Old Trafford. True, Stoke had the misfortune of losing Abdoulaye Faye, their captain, to injury after only nine minutes and their goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen before half-time.
But Chelsea were rampant from start to finish, prompting Stoke manager Tony Pulis to comment his side had "been murdered" and were "lucky to get nil". Chelsea opened the scoring after 24 minutes when Didier Drogba produced a memorable piece of skill to pluck a Malouda cross-field ball out of the air with his right foot when it had appeared almost impossible to do so. He then crossed waist-high for Kalou, recalled after being left out at Tottenham, to finish the move with a wonderful diving header.
In that moment Stoke's fate was sealed and when Kalou doubled his team's lead seven minutes later, sliding in two-footed to score from close range after Sorensen had saved a Lampard shot, it was about how many Chelsea would score. Long gone are the days when the London club would shut up shop at 2-0 and look to rest key players - Ancelotti has a different approach and his team went for the jugular.
It was 3-0 shortly before half-time when Lampard scored from the spot, a slightly fortuitous award after Kalou was rugby-tackled by Robert Huth outside the area. But there was nothing lucky about the remaining strikes as Chelsea romped to a victory that sent out a real message to Alex Ferguson's United. Kalou made it 4-0, completing his first hat-trick for Chelsea when he scored at the second attempt past Asmir Begovic, the substitute keeper, after 68 minutes.
Lampard then produced a clever finish with the wrong side of his foot from a Hutchinson cross before late goals from Sturridge and Malouda - who also had a contender for miss of the season - completed an excellent night for Ancelotti's side, who now go to Anfield full of confidence next Sunday. There is still big chance the title race could go to a final day - when Chelsea face Wigan at home and United take on Stoke at Old Trafford. But one thing is certain, Ancelotti's men are in pole position.