Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho believes it is too early to rule Manchester United out of the English Premier League title race despite David Moyes’s side trailing leaders Arsenal by 12 points.
Mourinho’s Chelsea lie in second place, four points behind their London rivals, and the Portuguese warned earlier this week that no contender could afford to fall 12 or 13 points adrift.
However, he refused to discount the reigning champions’ challenge despite their shock mid-week loss at home to Moyes’s former club Everton.
“If it was another club I’d say it was impossible, but not with United,” Mourinho said on Wednesday.
“The potential of the team, what the club represents, the culture of the club – it’s not a club in panic, a club where you feel the end of the world is arriving.
“They are calm. They go the same way. They support the manager.”
Saturday 7 December
Man United v Newcastle
Sunday 8 December
Fulham v Aston Villa
Monday 9 December
Swansea v Hull
Speculation has started to grow about the future of Moyes, who was installed as Alex Ferguson’s successor at the end of last season.
But Mourinho thinks that the Scot will be given time to turn things around and that with more teams in contention for the top prize this season, there is still a route back for United.
“Nobody touches the manager,” he said.
“They have a project. If they don’t win this season, they think they’ll win next season. It’s a stable situation, an example for others.
“For that, they are still contenders. They will fight and try and get 12 to 15 points in a row, waiting for matches between (Manchester) City and Arsenal, Arsenal and Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, where others will lose points. Yes, they are still contenders.”
And he added: “I think everybody is capable of winning it. We want to be there, we want to be close, we want to fight to the last moment, we want to improve, we want to win the next match.
“Hopefully, by the end of the season, instead of being 25 points off the leader or 14 points like it happened in the last two seasons, hopefully we are there, whether we’re champions or not.
“Arsenal lead because they have more points, they’ve been better and have made less mistakes. They deserve to be there. But the championship doesn’t finish at the end of the year. It finishes by the end of May.”
Mourinho’s side will attempt to follow up their 4-3 mid-week win at Sunderland with a second away victory at Stoke City on Saturday.
The former Real Madrid manager believes that his side will face a different type of challenge at the Britannia Stadium than in recent years, following Mark Hughes’s arrival as manager to succeed Tony Pulis.
Pulis’s sides were renowned for their direct physical approach and Mourinho believes the change has come at the right time for the Potters.
“I think sometimes, at a certain moment, clubs also have to care about a style of play,” he said.
“They also have to care about the way you sell your product. I think they did well to change a philosophy that was giving points, but was not giving a future.
“I think they did well. They’re a little different now. Not so much. They play better football, but they keep many things from the past. I don’t think they are too different. It will be difficult, that’s for sure.”
Centre-back David Luiz will still be missing for Chelsea with a knee injury, but striker Samuel Eto’o and attacking midfielder Oscar are back in contention.
“Luiz is out, and I don’t know when I have him back. Eto’o is fine and is back to the group, and Oscar is also much, much better,” Mourinho said.
“I have to decide whether to play him (Oscar) or not. It was the injury against Southampton, something in his ankle, but he’s much better.”