By Oliver Platt
John Terry may try to deny it, but player power, it seems, is back at Stamford Bridge - only this time, the return could be brief.
Andre Villas-Boas' attempts to unseat the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba from their thrones failed, but if Chelsea do not succeed in progressing beyond the last-16 of the Champions League when they meet Napoli on Wednesday, Roman Abramovich may be forced to accept the reality of the Blues' current predicament.
Make no mistake - the era of Lampard, Drogba and others such as John Terry, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole is coming to an end. Not without a minor miracle will Chelsea reach the Champions League final this season, with another Premier League title also beyond the old guard. Simply qualifying for Europe's premier competition next season is the extent of the Blues' domestic aims at this point.
Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba as well as Petr Cech, John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou all started against Stoke at the expense of newer faces such as David Luiz, Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu and Fernando Torres. Cech and Mikel likely have a long-term future in south-west London but for many others, the visit of Walter Mazzarri's team represents a final opportunity to delay what will be an eventually inevitable rebuild.
It might have already been over if not for Drogba, who inspired the Blues to a 3-0 win that secured their progression beyond the group stage at the expense of Valencia. The Ivorian, who reached the landmark of 100 Premier League goals by scoring against Stoke, will need to be in a similar vein of form to help reverse the two-goal deficit. He will likely be preferred, once again, to the misfiring Torres.
It cannot be denied that Chelsea's senior professionals played a part in Villas-Boas' departure - the Portuguese, admittedly too quickly, tried to phase them out and they did not like it. Now they must step up to the mark and take responsibility for their actions by proving that they still have something left to give.
Lampard and Drogba's days, at 33- and 34-years-old respectively, are likely numbered but Cech and Terry are younger at 29 and 31 and still have the quality to make a contribution as this Chelsea team enters a period of transition. They both also, however, will be pushed by younger players such as Thibaut Courtois and Gary Cahill and cannot afford to rest on their laurels.
Others, such as Essien, Mikel and Kalou, must re-assert themselves as significant cogs in the Blues machine in order to secure their future. The Ghanaian, in particular, has fallen from his position as one of the Premier League's finest midfielders in recent seasons due to injury but remains only 29 years old.
Question marks surround the core of the once formidable side built by Mourinho and its future, much as they did under Luiz Felipe Scolari before Carlo Ancelotti arrived to guide them to arguably their most convincing Premier League title since Abramovich's reign began.
Now, the situation is more severe. It is, quite simply, do or die – prove yourself capable of competing with Europe's finest teams, or someone else will arrive to do it for you. Abramovich is not a man who will contemplate tolerating any less.
Follow Oliver Platt on