Mark Hughes has doubts over Craig Bellamy and Stephen Ireland ahead of Manchester City's Premier League encounter with Chelsea at Eastlands.

The pair both picked up knee injuries in Wednesday's Carling Cup win over Arsenal and are rated as extremely doubtful.

Vladimir Weiss, who scored his first senior goal in midweek, is also unlikely to figure after being laid low by tonsillitis but Martin Petrov and Nigel de Jong should be available after missing out on the Arsenal triumph.

Hughes believes Chelsea are England's undisputed number one at present.

The verdict may not go down very well at Manchester United, who Hughes' City team must tackle in an all-Mancunian Carling Cup semi-final next month.

But the Welshman has no doubts. With Carlo Ancelotti's diamond formation in midfield proving to be far more durable than many experts thought before the season began, Chelsea have taken a firm grip of the Premier League.

And, while City look to inflict some damage on the Londoners at Eastlands this weekend, Hughes feels they are firm favourites for the title.

"At this current time Chelsea, without a shadow of a doubt, are the best team in the country," said Hughes.

"Defensively they are rock solid and they have always had a real goalscoring threat.

"But the way they shape up now, with the four guys in midfield, makes them really difficult to break down.

"Even if you get past the shield of the defensive diamond you still have to overcome John Terry and his mates, which is not easy."

As Chelsea are on a run of eight straight victories against their fellow blues, the visitors' will start favourites.

However, for all the difficulties Hughes' side have experienced during a run of seven successive Premier League draws, their form in head-to-head combat with the "big four" makes for encouraging reading.

The defeat of Arsenal in Wednesday's Carling Cup tie means City have registered two victories over the Gunners this term. They also established a winning position at Anfield before eventually being forced to settle for a draw against Liverpool.

And few will forget the Michael Owen winner in the sixth minute of stoppage time during a thrilling Manchester derby at Old Trafford in September.

That remains City's only defeat of the campaign, with Hughes seeing encouraging signs from their most recent outing that can be transferred into Premier League combat.

"It is important we continue in the same vein as Wednesday because you have to give yourself a chance to win games," he said.

"If you are not competing defensively you can go under very quickly.

"You must have that defensive platform to allow you to cause the opposition problems. That is what we will strive to do."

Ashley Cole is set to return to Chelsea's starting XI.

Cole (hamstring) was missing from Wednesday's Carling Cup loss at Blackburn but will be included in a side that is likely to include several changes from the Blackburn defeat.

Salomon Kalou (thigh), Daniel Sturridge (knee), Alex (hip) and Jose Bosingwa (knee) are all unavailable.

Carlo Ancelotti is a firm believer in the practice of shaking hands with opposing managers - and will do so after Saturday's game.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger stormed down the tunnel following his side's 3-0 defeat in the Carling Cup at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Hughes labelled Wenger "ungracious" and other Premier League managers weighed in with criticism, but a similar scenario seems unlikely tomorrow.

"I think that shaking hands is a normal thing," Ancelotti said.

"Mark Hughes is a very good coach. I know him. For me, it's not a problem to shake hands. You show respect to the other coach. It's normal.

"In Italy, it's not usual to do that at the end, immediately after the game.

"In England we have to do it. I think it's a good thing to maintain calm and the atmosphere.

"I don't know why Wenger didn't shake hands with the other coach. I don't know if it was right or wrong. Every person can do what he wants to do."

Ancelotti's side travel to City, who lie seventh, hoping to maintain their five-point lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League.

Both sides are bankrolled by billionaires; Chelsea are owned by Russian Roman Abramovich while City are backed by powerful Arab oil tycoon Sheikh Mansour.

Chelsea have won six major trophies since Abramovich took over and Ancelotti believes the best way for City to do the same is via major investment from their wealthy owner.

"I think that, if you take good players, the top players, then it's the quickest way to arrive at the top," he said.

Copyright (c) PA Sport 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Topics:
#Arsenal
#Ashley Cole
#Martin Petrov
#John Terry
#Stephen Ireland
#Manchester City
#Vladimir Weiss
#Blackburn Rovers
#Salomon Kalou
#League Cup
#Chelsea
#Mark Hughes
#Michael Owen
#Craig Bellamy
#Premier League
#Alex
#Manchester United
#Daniel Sturridge
#Nigel De Jong
#Mark Hughes
#Jose Bosingwa
#Liverpool
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