Chelsea's hopes of regaining the Premier League title received a timely boost yesterday with the news that John Terry will return from his knee injury before the end of the year.
There were fears that Terry had suffered season-threatening knee ligament damage during Sunday's 1-1 draw against Liverpool, with the Chelsea captain carried off and leaving Stamford Bridge on crutches.
An MRI scan, however, has revealed no significant ligament damage and Chelsea say that he will now be out for "weeks rather than months".
The news will come as a huge relief to manager Roberto Di Matteo, who has already been without Terry for four domestic matches this season because of his Football Association ban.
Terry's knee remains bruised and swollen, meaning further tests will be conducted over the next 48 hours before a definite timescale can be established for his return. As of last night, the expectation was that he would be out for between two and six weeks.
It all means that, even in the worst-case scenario, Terry can realistically hope to return for the four matches in 11 days over Christmas and New Year, against Aston Villa, Norwich, Everton and Queens Park Rangers. Terry's participation in next month's Fifa Club World Cup in Japan, however, does remain in some doubt.
A question mark also hangs over the short-term future of Chelsea vice-captain Frank Lampard who, according to Chinese club Guizhou Renhe, is in talks about leaving Stamford Bridge in January. Lampard, as well as Ashley Cole, is out of contract at the end of this season and has been unable to find agreement on extending his deal at Chelsea.
Renhe's deputy board chairman, Yang Xiayou, said yesterday that the club were in contact with Lampard but that no deal had yet been completed.
It follows weekend reports in the Chinese media in which the club's chairman, Dai Yongge, had claimed Lampard would join them as captain in January.
Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Lampard's former Chelsea team-mates, both moved to China earlier this year, joining Shanghai Shenhua on contracts worth around £250,000 a week. Lampard, who is currently sidelined with a calf injury, also has options in Major League Soccer, with interest from the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Lampard's family, however, is based in England and he would also have to consider the implications on his international career of moving to China or the US. Should Cole leave, Paris Saint-Germain is emerging as the most likely destination.
The heightened uncertainty over the future of such key players comes just as Chelsea have suffered their first significant blip of the season. Petr Cech, the goalkeeper, said that the players had "killed ourselves" against Liverpool by not turning their superiority at 1-0 into a second goal.
"We just need to be strong to go game by game, getting points because this is the only way you'll win the league," said Cech. "If we start looking back thinking we lost points here and there, we won't win the league.
"We need to have more concentration at both ends, when we defend and when we have chances to kill the game off. This will be the key for us. Any advantage you give to Manchester City or United is something they can use in the future."
Asked if it was now a three-horse race between Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, Cech said: "It looks like it is. We have lost some points and they did at the start of the season, so it looks like we will be the three teams that will chase the title. The most consistent team will win. We have had two head-to-heads and they will be the big moments in the season."
Cech is also confident that Chelsea will cope defensively in the immediate absence of Terry. "We have a large squad and quality defenders so this is a chance for the others to shine," he said. "He has been injured in the past so knows what it takes to come back in good shape. He always heals well and I believe he will come back soon."
Against Liverpool on Sunday, Chelsea were denied by a Luis Suarez equaliser, with Cech joining Di Matteo in complaining that Ramires was pushed in the build-up to the goal. "Suarez is a clever player and he did it in a moment when none of the referees could have seen it," said Cech.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)