Loss of talisman puts pressure on Chelsea defence

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The old gladiator with a forehead like a butcher's slab. The "symbol" of Chelsea, according to Jose Mourinho. In Chelsea's first title-winning campaign in 2005 John Terry framed every one of his match-day shirts from a season in which he was ever-present until the title was won. "I'll have to overlap them a bit," he joked when it was suggested that there might not be a frame big enough.

This season he cannot, he will not, be the same presence that he was in both Chelsea's title-winning seasons. The news that Terry is facing up to three months out following an operation to remove a slipped disc means that this will be a very different Chelsea that shapes up for the new year. One that, pardon the pun, is missing the most crucial part of what Mourinho calls its "spine".

The pain must have been terrible indeed for Terry, who played much of Mourinho's first season with a bone spur on one of his toes that meant he finished most games in excruciating pain. He is the man who runs off the kind of injuries that finish most players' involvement in matches and he is the character who binds Chelsea together.

Where do Chelsea go from here without Terry? As Mourinho's leader in the dressing room he has bound together the different nationalities and superstars with his own admittedly basic sense of training ground humour. He is the only current first-team graduate of the club's youth scheme, without whom the Premiership champions have looked desperately vulnerable.

Terry had always preferred playing alongside William Gallas to any other defensive partner and told Mourinho last season but could not prevent the short-sighted deal that saw the Frenchman leave for Arsenal. Gallas, Terry always believed, was a better foil for him. Most of all he had pace, which has been the attribute conspicuously lacking between Terry and Carvalho.

Now the question is: who will play alongside Carvalho? The Portuguese international is a neat, graceful defender more in the mould of Rio Ferdinand than Terry himself. He will be required to be the senior of the two centre-halves at Chelsea. Khalid Boulahrouz is the obvious candidate to take the position next to him but the Dutchman seems to have quickly fallen out of favour.

Although Boulahrouz has been played out of position at full-back, where he has had some disasters, most noticeably against Steven Gerrard at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho seems to have lost confidence in him entirely. Against Wigan he chose the hitherto unfancied Paulo Ferreira as a converted centre-back. You could hardly blame him: Boulahrouz has looked clumsy and off the pace.

Don't put it past Mourinho to improvise drastically and pick Michael Ballack at centre-back. The German has the height he regards as so crucial and, given that Didier Drogba has been considered for the position, too, it would not be such a leap of imagination. Ballack has hardly made himself indispensable in midfield.

When January comes it is now inconceivable that Chelsea will not act. Once again, it seems, they will be required to pay a dauntingly high price to get their man, Micah Richards at Manchester City. They will have only themselves to blame. In the summer they sold a top-class centre-half in Gallas and failed to replace him adequately.

What they will not be able to buy is Terry's supreme influence as a fearless, intimidating presence. Carvalho is definitely not the same kind of character and neither Ballack nor Andrei Shevchenko have yet established themselves as players approaching Terry's reputation. What Mourinho may come to realise is that, beyond the likes of Frank Lampard, his team has changed so radically in the last six months that without Terry it could lack leadership.

"Come on the Chels!" is the rallying cry that Terry always signs off with in his programme notes. It will hardly seem like such a call to arms with the man himself sitting in the stands.

* Micah Richards' team-mate Joey Barton, along with West Ham's Paul Konchesky, will sit out this weekend. Both players had appeals against last weekend's red cards rejected.