Frank Lampard will be among Chelsea's substitutes at Sunderland on Saturdayafter an absence of almost seven weeks as Rafael Benítez attempts to ensure his side do not fall further behind in the Premier League title race before departing for the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan.
The veteran England midfielder damaged his calf in the Champions League defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine back in October and has watched as the holders departed that competition at the group stage shedding the manager, Roberto Di Matteo, en route while he underwent his rehabilitation. Chelsea travel to Wearside without a win in seven league games, their worst sequence since 1995, and 10 points behind Manchester United in the table. Indeed, should they succumb at the Stadium of Light, they could potentially be 19 points adrift of the leaders by the time they next compete in the Premier League.
The interim first-team manager will concentrate on Chelsea achieving a first league win since 20 October, with Lampard's return offering some reassurance, even if the 34-year-old is short of match fitness and will only start on the bench. "It is positive that he is back because we need character, we need numbers, and Frank is an experienced player," Benítez said. "We've got a good team and a strong squad, but we needed players with more experience, and he could make a difference. He adds something, finding players between the lines, getting into the box and scoring goals. He cannot be the box-to-box player he was 10 years ago, but he'll be important for us when we're in possession with the players we have up front, people with good movement and ability. You need someone to link with them, and he can play that role.
"When I first came here I had a conversation with Frank and [John] Terry, who were both injured, in one of the changing rooms before training once the rest of the squad had gone out to do their warm-up. We spoke about the rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool when I was there, about how we work and the mentality needed. I have a winning mentality. They had, back then, and still have a winning mentality. They are both important players with big characters."
Terry's absence will be prolonged until after the team returns from Japan, with the centre-half having suffered minor inflammation around the knee ligaments damaged during the draw with Liverpool last month. He will not travel to the Club World Cup but will instead continue his own rehabilitation at Cobham in the hope he might play some part in the Capital One Cup quarter-final at Leeds on 19 December. Daniel Sturridge, who has been suffering from a hamstring complaint, will also be absent at Sunderland but may join the team in Yokohama next week if necessary.
Chelsea will travel to Japan despite the earthquake which struck off the east coast of Japan on Friday with the Premier League club reassured by Fifa that, while the tremors were felt in Tokyo, where buildings swayed for several minutes, there is no risk to the tournament which began on Thursday. The London club's eight-day stay – they fly from Newcastle immediately after the game against Sunderland, with the final and third-place play-off scheduled for 16 December – will, however, disrupt their domestic campaign with Manchester United set to have played two more games before Chelsea next kick off in the league, against Aston Villa on 23 December.
"I'm not worried about the distance [from the top]," added Benítez. "It's important we win at Sunderland so we are closer, but all we can do is think about one game at a time. We have to improve the team and be mentally strong enough to compete in the second part of the league. At Valencia, we were eight points behind in January and won the league. If we have to do the same here, we will do it. Obviously we'll have our chances if we start winning games."