CARLO ANCELOTTI received a boost yesterday when Michael Essien took part in a full training session in the snow at Chelsea's training ground in Cobham, Surrey.
But the manager will not be the immediate beneficiary of the midfield player's return to fitness, because Essien will leave this weekend to report for international duty with Ghana at the African Cup of Nations and could be away for the rest of the month.
Essien (27) will be accompanied to Angola by a Chelsea doctor, because he has yet to regain full match fitness after tearing a hamstring in a Champions League match against Apoel last month, but he hopes to play some part in the tournament. He will definitely miss Ghana's opening group B game against Togo on Monday, but is aiming to be fully fit in time to face his Chelsea team-mate, Didier Drogba, when his side meet Ivory Coast four days later.
Essien's prolonged absence is compounded by the fact that John Obi Mikel is also in Angola with Nigeria, leaving Ancelotti with a shortage of defensive midfield players.
The Italian is planning to use Juliano Belletti in the holding role in their Premier League match against Hull City on Saturday.
The Brazilian is primarily a right back, but has successfully operated in midfield in the past.
Essien and Belletti were joined in training by Nicolas Anelka yesterday, with the France striker likely to be fit to face Hull after a hamstring injury.
Anelka has not played since scoring his eighth goal of the season in Chelsea's 2-1 win over Portsmouth three weeks ago, but he will return to the side to partner Daniel Sturridge up front at the KC Stadium.
Anelka revealed yesterday how much he has enjoyed being given a free role behind Drogba by Ancelotti, but he will be asked to lead the attack in a more orthodox manner against Hull. The 30-year-old has been one of Chelsea's most consistent performers this season and is likely to be rewarded with a contract extension in the summer, despite having 18 months to run on his existing deal.
"I wanted to play this position when I first came to Chelsea, with Didier in front and me just behind," Anelka said. "I wanted to show everyone I could play there and I wanted, even if I'm not scoring a lot of goals, to be creative in the middle of the pitch.
"This season the manager gave me the opportunity to do it, to be free on the pitch and I feel good. It gives me the chance to have some versatility."