By Liam Twomey
Almost two months after sustaining a knee injury he initially thought would keep him out of action for three weeks, John Terry is finally nearing his Chelsea return.
“He has been training and we are considering giving him some minutes in the Under-21 game [against Fulham] on Thursday,” Rafa Benitez told reporters ahead of his side’s Capital One Cup semi-final first leg clash with Swansea City.
“We will see how he feels on Thursday and, hopefully, he can play more minutes in a short time. We will see. But at least it's a positive thing.”
A positive thing it certainly will be to the majority of Blues fans, who still idolise Terry as their ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ despite him approaching the twilight of a career dogged by controversy. Whatever his public pronouncements, however, Benitez may not be feeling quite so enthusiastic.
Due to a succession of setbacks in his recovery, Terry has yet to play for this post-Roberto Di Matteo Chelsea. The team missed his leadership and organisational skills in Japan, as their hopes of being crowned Club World Cup winners were shattered by a disciplined and well-drilled Corinthians side.
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This, of course, is not to say the 32-year-old’s renewed presence will necessarily be negative. He is rightly regarded as the greatest captain in Chelsea’s history, having led the club to an unprecedented trophy haul over the past decade, and he remains immensely popular among his team-mates.
Moreover, together with the likes of Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and the recently departed Didier Drogba, he has provided some form of continuity amid a backdrop of almost perpetual managerial flux. Benitez will be the ninth boss he has played under at Stamford Bridge.
Yet here is where the problems begin. Terry has enjoyed a level of influence to match his longevity at Chelsea, and has used it to occasionally go well beyond the remit of a traditional captain. Over the years he has taken training, been consulted on tactics, managerial appointments and – perhaps most troubling of all – sackings, too.
The memory of him dishing out tactical instructions behind an impassive Di Matteo during last season's crunch Champions League clash with Napoli at Stamford Bridge is impossible to shake. The Italian was his own man but wisely chose to govern by consent last term. Benitez's desire for total control may yet lead to conflict.
Luckily for the Spaniard, these days Terry holds considerably less sway. The Anton Ferdinand racism row, a PR disaster which caused the club huge problems in 2012, has undeniably worked against him. Abramovich is also ruthlessly discarding the older heads who dared to undermine his £30 million investment in Andre Villas-Boas last season as he looks to build a younger, more dynamic and obedient team.
Drogba has gone, Lampard and Ashley Cole will almost certainly follow this summer, and Terry is unlikely to be offered an extension to his current contract, which expires in the summer of 2014.
But while they still enjoy the overwhelming support of the fans, Chelsea’s veterans are showing no willingness to go down without a fight.
Lampard is doing his bit to whip up a media circus by treating this season as his glorious public farewell, while the issue of his likely exit has also seen Terry’s desire for influence re-surface. His Instagram post calling for his vice-captain’s No.8 shirt to be retired as a tribute has caused anger among club officials for fanning the flames of an incendiary issue, and has since been deleted.
Abramovich’s favour looks lost for good, but Terry, Lampard and Cole still possess one trump card: his impatience.
Throughout the Russian’s ownership of the Blues, influential figures in the dressing room have always known that if the team endures a poor run of results, it is usually the manager who pays. This knowledge they have occasionally used to their advantage – just ask Villas-Boas or Luiz Felipe Scolari – and the potential for them to do it again will surely be in the back of Benitez’s mind.
Consequently, when Terry returns to fitness, the Spaniard will be keenly aware of the risks of leaving him to kick his heels in the stands or on the bench. Equally, however, he will have to satisfy the Chelsea hierarchy, who see David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic as more central to their vision of a mobile, ball-playing back line which can pressure high up the pitch when required.
This balance will be a delicate but crucial one. Benitez is only an interim manager, but how he handles the recovering Terry may help determine how long – or short – this ‘interim’ period proves to be.
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