The big players are back, but for how long? The worry at Chelsea, as the champions enter a Christmas programme of four matches in 10 days, is that the rush of fixtures will overwhelm a much smaller squad than has previously been the case in the Roman Abramovich era. This concern was revealed yesterday by John Terry, and tacitly confirmed by his manager, Carlo Ancelotti.
Pondering the recent poor run of form, Chelsea's worst in 10 years, Terry said: "We've missed some key players at key times. In the past we had a big squad and could rotate and put other players in, we don't have that now, we have quite a young squad."
This is deliberate, Chelsea having decided to trim the wage bill and inject fresh legs into an ageing squad by promoting youth, home-grown where possible. The problem, admitted Ancelotti, is that, "When you are not in a good moment, it's very difficult to put in the young players because you don't want to put responsibility on their shoulders."
In the summer Chelsea moved on Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Joe Cole and Michael Ballack, average age 31, combined caps around 300. In came Yossi Benayoun, who has been injured since September, 23-year-old Ramires and, from the youth team, Josh McEachran. More was expected of youngsters Gaël Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma and Daniel Sturridge.
Chelsea began the season in formidable form but with Terry, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien suffering injury, and Didier Drogba catching malaria, they have won only one of their last seven league games to slide from first to fourth.
That quartet are back but their fitness will be tested over the holiday programme, as Terry recognised. "It's a case of keeping everyone fit over the Christmas period and waiting for other teams to slip up, which they will do. It's a time for everyone to stay together like we always do. Once we've turned that corner we can move on."
Terry noted that Chelsea begin with two games in three days (Arsenal on Monday, Bolton on Wednesday), a schedule which angers Ancelotti. "I want to say something about the Bolton game because we won't have the possibility to recover," he said. "We'll have two days, Bolton three. That's not good to have one day less to recover. I'm not happy about it." The reason, of course, is television scheduling. Chelsea, like every other club, are happy to take the broadcasters' cash and must deal with the consequences. Chelsea have at least had 15 days to prepare for the Arsenal match and, with Jose Bosingwa recovered, now have only Benayoun, Alex and Yuri Zhirkov absent.
Drogba's fitness could be as significant as Lampard's. The Ivory Coast striker has scored 13 times in as many games against Arsenal and Ancelotti said: "I think they are a little bit afraid of Drogba, because he's done very well against them. If Drogba plays his best, we'll have more opportunity to win."
If Manchester United defeat Sunderland on Boxing Day Chelsea will be six points adrift. Ancelotti concluded: "We don't want that gap to widen. It's important to obtain a result."
* The postponed meeting of Chelsea and United has been tentatively rescheduled for Tuesday 1 March, depending on both sides' FA Cup commitments.