With Frank Lampard now not expected to return to the Chelsea side until the middle of next month, Carlo Ancelotti has been forced to defend the depth of his squad in the face of a lengthening injury list.
Lampard will miss tonight's Champions League encounter with Marseilles as well as Sunday's game against Arsenal as he takes longer than expected to recover from hernia surgery. The midfielder will also not be fit in time for England's Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro on 12 October, but he is earmarked to come back against Aston Villa four days later. The 32-year-old has not played since the victory over Stoke on 28 August.
He has trained since the operation but has been hampered by pain around the scar tissue. He is, said John Obi Mikel, "a massive loss". Ancelotti admitted: "It is a bigger problem than we first thought but he should be fit after the international break."
The absence of Lampard for a further two games is another setback for the Italian who will be without four other senior players and the suspended Didier Drogba for the French champions' visit to Stamford Bridge. It means that the home bench, like a village bus stop, will be largely populated with teenagers tonight. Ross Turnbull, the 25-year-old back-up goalkeeper, and the 31-year-old Paulo Ferreira will be the only over-21s at Ancelotti's disposal.
"It is not a problem," claimed Ancelotti, who added with a grin that he is either criticised for having a squad that is too old or one that is too young. "Experience is a good thing and it is important to have it as a squad, but experience will come. For me it is a good moment. We have young players improving and we have players with experience. Thirty is not old. We have a good mix."
The comparative limits of Ancelotti's squad were demonstrated on Saturday. As Roberto Mancini threw on Emmanuel Adebayor, Adam Johnson and Jerome Boateng, three high-profile internationals, Ancelotti turned to Yuri Zhirkov, Daniel Sturridge and Josh McEachran.
"Sturridge and [Gaël] Kakuta are ready," said Ancelotti when questioned about the callowness of parts of his squad, especially in comparison to Manchester City's. "Kakuta is a fantastic player, maybe he will be better than Adam Johnson. I have a lot of options. It is normal at some point of the season to have two, three players injured."
Chelsea only recruited two players in the close season, Yossi Benayoun and Ramires, while five experienced squad members moved on, including Joe Cole, Deco and Ricardo Carvalho as the club pursue a more balanced approach to the transfer market.
It is four years since Chelsea last lost three games in a row and with no Drogba, Lampard, Salomon Kalou and Benayoun, their attacking options are notably reduced. But as football crises go, this remains one that most clubs across the continent would be happy to take on. Tonight Ancelotti will look to his two elder Frenchman to provide the goals against their compatriots. Nicolas Anelka is likely to lead the line with the support of Florent Malouda.
"He is in fantastic form," said Ancelotti of Anelka. "He is a mature player and will play for the team as he always does. He can play all positions up front and has the perfect skills for it; speed, quality and able to support players coming from midfield."
Marseilles lost their opening game to Spartak Moscow at the Stade Vélodrome having already suffered their worst start to a league campaign for 25 years and are defensively suspect. Ancelotti believes they can be overpowered by the physical presence of Michael Essien and Mikel, but he does not see the need to deliver any sort of rallying call to his side,
He said: "Marseilles are not a physical team. We have a lot of power. We didn't use it in the last game [against City]. I don't ask them [the players] to have a reaction [to Saturday's defeat]. I ask them just to play our football and to pay attention. I said before Saturday that it would be very difficult to be unbeaten during the season because it is a competitive championship here, there are a lot of teams that can beat you. So we are not upset to lose the unbeaten record and now we have to look forward – it's not the first time we have lost and it will not be the last."
Three key confrontations
Nicolas Anelka v Souleymane Diawara
Anelka will lead the line in the absence of the suspended Didier Drogba against former Charlton defender Diawara. The Senegalese centre-back must avoid being dragged wide by Anelka, and creating space for the likes of Essien to exploit.
Michael Essien v Édouard Cisse
Essien has been pushing further forward this season and without Lampard takes on extra goalscoring responsibility. He comes up against experienced anchorman Édouard Cisse, who helped Monaco eliminate Chelsea en route to the 2004 final.
John Terry v Loïc Rémy
Terry only returned from injury at Manchester City on Saturday and faces a stern test against pacy forward Rémy. Linked with a host of Premier League sides over the summer, Rémy impressed off the bench at Sochaux last weekend and should start tonight.