John Terry still fully focused but struggling to accept his bit-part role at Chelsea
By his own admission it has been a difficult campaign for John Terry and for Chelsea but the stark reality for the central defender and captain is that he is digesting the fact that he is no longer an automatic first-choice.
Since returning from a knee problem in January, the 32-year-old has started seven of Chelsea's 17 matches – with that only partly explained by the troublesome injury.
Even more startlingly only one of those matches – the defeat away to Newcastle United – has been in the Premier League, the club's absolute priority. The other appearances have been FA Cup matches against Brentford and Middlesbrough and in the Europa League.
"I've not played in as many games as I'd have liked," Terry said. "But when I train I remain fully focused and give everything that's the same for everyone. There will be lots of players who are going to be upset by not playing but we realise there's an awful lot of games coming up." There are, indeed, with Chelsea facing a fixture pile-up following Sunday's home match against West Ham United and the international break as they fight to remain in the top four, prepare for an FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United and a tricky Europa League last-eight tie against the Russian club Rubin Kazan.
"The build-up of fixtures means we could play the most games ever in a season, I think," Terry claimed.
Injuries have taken their toll on Terry, who has just one more year on his contract after this season, but it is also evident that under interim manager Rafael Benítez his selection is far from certain. Terry scored against Steaua Bucharest in midweek but there was also further evidence that he is struggling to recapture his form.
"I think we've said before we've not been playing too well all season," Terry said. "We've had spells up and down. But we know we've got another level to go to. If we can put on a good run and some good form and get some points then we can catch the teams above us.
"And that is the target – to make the Champions League next year which is a must for this club." Failure to do so would be unthinkable.
Terry's relationship with Benítez has appeared strained at times and it was instructive to hear the defender claim the players "knew from the start" that the Spaniard, who succeeded the sacked Roberto Di Matteo in November, would not be getting the job on a full-time basis.
"The manager said that from the start as well," Terry said. "We'll work hard under him and we'll fight for this football club. We need to cement what Chelsea Football Club is about year after year; and when we sign new players we need to show them that winning trophies is a must year after year. Whether there are managers or players coming in, that's the characteristic of this football club.
"One thing you can say about the club and the players here is we're mentally very strong. We've dealt with ups and downs throughout our time, season after season here. And we'll always remain together.
"You talk about togetherness but when you go 2-0 down [in the FA Cup] at Man United then you see the real team spirit. Nine times out of 10 other teams would throw the towel in; we went the other way and kicked on and really went for it [drawing 2-2]." Terry, of course, did not play a minute of that match while Fernando Torres was a 77th-minute substitute. Torres also scored against Steaua although there was then a penalty miss with Terry arguing that the striker's eagerness to take the kick was "a good sign".
"Obviously he's a little bit short of confidence; but to see him grab the ball, that's the change he needs. Scoring the goal is great for him as well. It only takes on goal for him to really kick on." Despite Terry's optimism the likelihood is that Torres will return to the bench against West Ham on Sunday afternoon – with Demba Ba taking his place. The question is, can Terry maintain his own place? The likely answer, one that would not have been countenanced not so long ago, is no.
- Jason Burt, Telegraph.co.uk