Terry still absent but return of Lampard eases Benitez blues
Chelsea take on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light today having received mixed news on the injury front, with John Terry's unavailability for the FIFA Club World Cup tempered by the imminent return of Frank Lampard.
Terry has been advised against travelling to Japan on the grounds that his recovery from knee ligament damage might be hampered by inflammation during the 12.5-hour flight.
Interim manager Rafael Benitez refused to set a date for the Chelsea skipper's comeback, but was able to confirm that Lampard, who has been sidelined with a calf problem since October, will play against Sunderland.
"John was quite excited about the World club competition because it was something different and a great opportunity," the Spaniard said. "He wanted to go and to help, but it's better that he stays.
"We don't know when he'll play. With this type of problem you have to wait and see how he reacts. He's training very hard, but knees are a special case because there are lots of joints to fix. He knows we have to be patient."
Chelsea may have spent vast sums strengthening their squad, but it is stalwarts Terry and Lampard who remain the leaders of a team that has entered freefall since defeating Tottenham 4-2 in late October.
Benitez agreed that Lampard's return is well timed. "At least one important player is back because we need character and experience," he said.
"At the moment we have a good team, but we need players with more experience. He can have an impact. He scores goals and understands the game."
Benitez must plan for today's match without John Obi Mikel, who received a three-match ban for confronting referee Mark Clattenburg after the stormy Premier League clash with Manchester United in October.
'Prospect,' the referees' trade union, criticised the "leniency" of the suspension, but Benitez wanted to draw a line under the issue.
"John accepted the charge and we have to move forward. He's been training as normal. He was talking to the people in charge and everything is clear," he said.
Chelsea sit third in the Premier League, 10 points behind leaders Manchester United and seven adrift of second-placed Manchester City, but Benitez still sees a glimmer of hope.
"My thoughts are clear – we have to win against Sunderland and we can be closer to at least one of them," he said.
Thrashing Nordsjaelland 6-1 last Wednesday gave Benitez his first victory in four matches as Chelsea's interim boss.
"The last game was really good. We can talk about the level of the other team, but it was the Champions League," he said.
"The intensity was fantastic and I was really pleased with the performance of the players. At 75 minutes we were still pushing and pushing. I think they showed the character they have. Fernando Torres was working very hard and the team was better attacking. He scored two goals and, hopefully, there will be more."
Sunderland head into today's match having won only two of their last 22 league games and stuck one point above the relegation zone.
However, Martin O'Neill, who celebrated his first anniversary as Black Cats manager this week, remains confident that there are much better times ahead.
He said: "I've been in management 20 years. I've had tougher times at other clubs and we've come through them. When I went to Leicester City, the first 10 or 11 games I couldn't win a match to save my life. We turned that around and were pretty successful.
"The first year at Aston Villa was also exceptionally tough. We'll pull things round and I hope we'll get a team of which the supporters will be proud."
The club's fans have so far stuck by O'Neill, but the frustration has been evident in recent weeks and, with today's game followed by another home match against Reading next Tuesday, it is an important few days for the club.
Sunderland v Chelsea,
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