While John Terry, confirmed in his position as club captain by Chelsea, is expected to lead the team out for tomorrow's Champions League tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, Frank Lampard can only hope he will be following the leader on to the pitch instead of again making his way to the substitutes' seats.
In Terry's absence at Tottenham on Saturday as his four-match domestic ban began, Lampard would normally have been expected to captain the team. Instead he was left kicking his heels until the start of added time, a victim of the dazzling success of the three midfield musketeers who are helping reinvent Chelsea's game in the manner demanded by the owner, Roman Abramovich. Their manager, Roberto Di Matteo, even preferred the youthful vigour of Ramires as the second holding player alongside the improved Jon Obi Mikel.
There is reason to expect that Lampard will be restored in Donetsk, just as happened in the previous Champions League tie after he had been left out of another big London derby, away to Arsenal, three days earlier. Clearly, however, he must become used to a dramatic increase in his proportion of appearances as a substitute – previously as low as one for every 25 starts – and is likely to give serious consideration to the attractions of Los Angeles, where the Galaxy club would love to reunite him with David Beckham.
Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard have settled in as a trio more quickly than anyone anticipated, including their manager. By using all three in support of Fernando Torres, Di Matteo has been able to bring about Abramovich's desired change of style and image, which has now yielded 20 goals in five games. Three of those matches have been away from home, where Di Matteo says Chelsea now have the ammunition to play the same way as at Stamford Bridge: "What has changed is our attitude. We go away and play with the same attitude we have at home, so we take the initiative, we don't just give it to the opposition. We want to impose ourselves, whether it is away or at home."
There will be home advantage against Manchester United on Sunday and the opportunity to extend the lead over them to seven points. Di Matteo will not be drawn into talk of titles yet, preferring to offer early warning of a "crazy" schedule in December, which includes visiting Japan for Fifa's overblown Club World Cup.
It would only be human of Tottenham's Andre Villas-Boas, sacked as Chelsea manager in March, to whistle an occasional chorus of the old standard "It Should Have Been Me". Bravely talking up his own players, he did have to admit of Mata, whom he signed, and last summer's two arrivals: "The trio up front was amazing. The game was won on unbelievable brilliance from Oscar, Mata and Hazard, who can unlock doors. The game is about players and at the moment they're in form. They are playing at a tremendous level and to counter them is extremely difficult."
Spurs managed to do so for only a brief period on either side of half-time. Having fallen behind early on to Gary Cahill's stunning volley, they took the lead through William Gallas and Jermain Defoe, only to be overhauled again as Mata took over, scoring twice and setting up a tap-in for Daniel Sturridge in the last minute.
Villas-Boas could, nevertheless, take consolation from having pushed his old club so hard in the absence of a midfield triumvirate of his own in Gareth Bale, Moussa Dembélé and Scott Parker. "To show that we could compete against the European champions at this level of form is a positive sign," he said, while agreeing that Chelsea's confidence and depth of squad are key factors. "This fluidity they have with those three players behind Fernando is tremendous and you have Moses and Daniel Sturridge on the bench; it looks good. You go into a run of results like they are at the moment, then the more you play the more you believe."
Exactly a year ago, it seemed possible that Villas-Boas's Chelsea side were in the same position, beaten only once in their opening 12 games and having just scored 13 times in the previous three. Then they played a derby away to Queen's Park Rangers, Terry shouted at Anton Ferdinand and things began to fall apart.
Spurs: FRIEDEL 6/10, WALKER 6, GALLAS 5, CAULKER 6, VERTONGHEN 6, HUDDLESTONE 5, SANDRO 5, LENNON 7, SIGURDSSON 6, DEMPSEY 5, DEFOE 7
Chelsea: CECH 6, COLE 7, LUIZ 6, CAHILL 7, IVANOVIC 6, HAZARD 8, RAMIRES 7, OSCAR 7, MIKEL 7, MATA 9, TORRES 6
Goals: Tottenham Gallas 47, Defoe 54). Chelsea Cahill 17, Mata 66, 69, Sturridge 90. Subs: Tottenham Livermore 6 (Huddlestone, 67), Adebayor (Dempsey, 74). Chelsea Sturridge (Oscar, 83), Lampard (Hazard, 89). Booked: Tottenham Huddlestone, Gallas, Walker. Chelsea Ivanovic, Ramires. Man of match Mata. Match rating 9/10. Poss: Tottenham 48%. Chelsea 52%. Attempts on target: Tottenham 16. Chelsea 7. Referee M Dean (Cheshire). Attendance 36,060.
Champions League: eye on the opposition
Shakhtar Donetsk continued their 100 per cent start to the league season with a 2-1 victory over Illychivets Mariupol on Friday as they prepared for tomorrow’s visit of Chelsea. Mircea Lucescu’s side have secured victories in all 12 of their games so far this season, although the win over Mariupol may not have been as emphatic as some expected, with second half goals from Taras Stepanenko and Ilsinho eventually showing the Ukrainian champions’ resilience as they came from behind at the Donbass Arena. TOM PARFITT