John Terry is set to make his first start for Rafael Benítez's Chelsea against Arsenal on Sunday as the interim first-team manager seeks to address what has been perceived as a lack of leadership and character in the team, frailties that have contributed to a recent slump in home form.
Benítez has won one of his six domestic games at Stamford Bridge, all of which have been played with supporters making clear their displeasure at his presence. The Spaniard had suggested in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's wasteful draw with Southampton that Terry was not yet ready to return to the fray. The veteran centre-half had injured knee ligaments during the draw with Liverpool on 11 November when Roberto Di Matteo was in charge and, while the damage was relatively minor, it has taken time for the joint to repair fully.
Yet the sight of his team throwing away a 2-0 half-time lead has impressed upon Benítez the need to restore Terry to the side, with the Spaniard encouraged by the 32-year-old's participation in training this week. His selection against Arsenal will depend upon how he emerges from Saturday's session at Cobham – heavy snow restricted the players to light routines outside on Friday – but there is optimism he will be able to play from the start. "We are working very hard with John and we'll see how he feels," Benítez said. "He's been training with the team, with his specific programme, and has been fine. We'll have another session and then we'll decide. If I asked him, he would say he wanted to play. I prefer not to ask and decide myself.
"But it's important to have players with character on the pitch, particularly if you want to manage a game like the other day. We have some good players. Some of them show more 'character'. Others show different qualities. We have a group of players with quality and sometimes we still miss these things, but [Terry] is one of the strong characters we have and to have bodies and people with this mentality can help. Hopefully he will be fine and we will be able to see his positive influence for the rest of the season in the team."
Terry's appearance against Arsenal represents his first Premier League start since the first week in November, after which his four-game domestic ban for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand cast him to the fringes. His last 90 minutes came in the Champions League group game defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk on 23 October in the midst of that suspension, with his football since amounting to a little over half an hour against Liverpool and a 10-minute cameo, in which he conceded a penalty, at Stoke last Saturday. Benítez had watched him during a 45-minute run-out for the under-21 development side against Fulham the previous night.
Chelsea's recent toils have demanded his inclusion, with nerves showing too often on the pitch in what has become a tense environment at Stamford Bridge. While the team have flourished on their travels – to the tune of 20 goals in six matches, and impressive wins at Everton and Stoke – they have been edgy and error-prone at times on their own patch, frustration setting in too easily when confronted by blanket defence with Queens Park Rangers, Swansea and Southampton permitted to register their own rewards as concentration has wavered.
Benítez said the atmosphere has not contributed to disappointing results, though he has pointed to a cramped fixture schedule hampering his attempts to impress new ideas and strategies more quickly on the team. He hopes a potentially explosive derby against rivals for Champions League qualification will help focus minds in the stands as well on the pitch. "It's good to have such a big challenge ahead of us after a draw at home, which was not good enough," he said. "Everyone will be concentrating [on the game]. To have Arsenal is a very good thing for me and the players, a rival who are close to us. We have to use that as a positive."
Arsenal won 5-3 in the corresponding fixture last season with Benítez full of admiration for his opposite number, Arsène Wenger. "He has been one of the best, if not the best, manager in England over the last few years with what he achieved and the way they do things, a good way," added Benítez. "The way they won things in those early days gave their board confidence in him.
"Football has changed. We know since the arrival of people with big money, the Premier League has changed a bit. To manage a club with common sense used to be fine. To have a good manager like Arsène Wenger was fine, and you could achieve things, but now it's a different world with clubs with big money. But he is still a great manager doing a great job."