Didier Drogba plays tonight for Chelsea against local rivals Fulham despite undergoing treatment for malaria, which the club believe he could have been carrying for months.
Blood tests revealed on Monday night that Drogba's "mystery virus" was far more serious than had first been feared. The 32-year-old has been suffering from headaches and high temperatures off and on for the past month, but it was only this week that it was confirmed he has malaria and he immediately started an intense, 48-hour course of medication.
Chelsea have been told the Ivory Coast striker could have picked up the disease as long ago as January, when he went away to Angola on international duty for the Africa Cup of Nations, and the condition could have remained dormant ever since.
Drogba was not fit to start against Liverpool on Sunday, although he came off the bench to play the second half of Chelsea's 2-0 defeat. Last Wednesday he managed 76 minutes of the 4-1 Champions League victory over Spartak Moscow before he was replaced by Daniel Sturridge.
The Chelsea manager, Carlo Ancelotti, yesterday paid tribute to Drogba's spirit in playing even though he has been way below his best. Ancelotti said: "Didier was, for this month, having difficulty to train. He didn't feel good. He didn't have power to train or ability to train. I think he lost some condition. He was unselfish to play and, also, when he was not at 100 per cent. Now he has the possibility to improve his condition without a problem. He will play tomorrow."
Malaria can be a very debilitating disease but Ancelotti is confident the talismanic striker, who scored 37 goals in all competitions for the club last season, will return as strong as ever. "It was serious once. Now it's a bit different and you can treat it very well and move on very quickly," Ancelotti said.
Drogba's illness highlights how much thinner Chelsea's squad is this season, after the decision in the summer to release senior professionals such as Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Juliano Belletti and Deco. Frank Lampard has missed the past two months with a groin injury, although he seems to be finally coming close to a return to the side, with Ancelotti pinning his hopes on a comeback against Sunderland on Sunday.
The club have also missed Michael Essien, who had a toe injury, in their last two games, while the defender Alex and striker Nicolas Anelka are serious doubts to face Fulham tonight. The injury problems were compounded when summer signing Yossi Benayoun was ruled out for most of the season with a torn Achilles.
Ancelotti claimed yesterday his squad was strong enough to cope, and said he had no plans to strengthen it in the January transfer window. "We are not thinking about buying new players in January," he said. "We are able to maintain the players fit and without injury. Sometimes it can happen. We started very well this season without certain players. Without important players, we've shown good football and achieved good results."
On Sunday Liverpool's Fernando Torres, who was a Chelsea transfer target last summer, scored twice to inflict the champions' second defeat of the season. However, Ancelotti said he is happy with Drogba rather than Torres. "When you have Drogba and Anelka, it's difficult to think about Torres," he said. "The day that Drogba will not be able to play and maintain this level of condition, we can think about buying another striker like Torres. But when Drogba is not able, Torres will be old."
If Lampard plays against Sunderland Ancelotti will be happy for the midfielder to join up with the England squad, should he be selected by manager Fabio Capello for the friendly with France next week.
"If he's available to play with us, he'll be available to play for England," Ancelotti said. "Capello must decide, but we don't have a problem if he's available for the Sunderland game for him to play with the national team. He's training with us. He's comfortable, good and fit. He's worked very hard, physically. He's 100 per cent. He just has to be comfortable to play with the ball and his team-mates."
Fulham's regular full-backs Carlos Salcido (ankle) and Chris Baird (thigh) will miss the game.