At first glance Michael Essien has not changed. His voice remains hushed, his words whispered through the kind of broad grin that lifts any mood, with the tree trunk legs and barrel chest still such a daunting obstacle to intimidate any opponent.
"My style hasn't changed," he said. "I'm still the same. When you bump into me you can tell I am still as strong as before." Cleiton Silva, a Brazilian striker at Tero Sasana, discovered as much when guesting for Singha All Stars on Wednesday, the forward's body presumably still as bruised now as his ego.
Yet bouncing a journeyman striker to the turf in a pre-season friendly in Bangkok is one thing; convincing all-comers he is the same dynamic presence who can thrive in the Premier League once again is quite another.
Essien has not played for Chelsea in a competitive fixture since the final game of the 2011-12 campaign and even that was a meaningless victory over relegated Blackburn Rovers claimed by a shadow team with Bayern Munich in mind. A player who had once felt so integral watched the Champions League final six days later from the substitutes' bench, his game undermined by three cruel knee injuries suffered in four years.
The cruciate and medial ligaments had been shredded in his left leg in separate twists, the anterior cruciate in his right leg going the same way in virtually the first training session overseen by André Villas-Boas two years ago. His successor, Roberto Di Matteo, clearly doubted Essien would be the same powerhouse of a player ever again and, as his team prepared to take on Atlético Madrid in last season's Uefa SuperCup, loaned him to Real Madrid for the season. José Mourinho still refers to the player as his "son", Essien returning the compliment in Malaysia on Thursday by calling Chelsea's returning manager "Daddy". The pair have been doing that for years. Each finds reassurance in the other's presence.
Essien will go into the new campaign a two-times Premier League title winner who once cost £24m with a point to prove and a reputation to restore. There were times last season, when Chelsea were short of numbers in central midfield with Oriol Romeu crocked and David Luiz thrust up out of defence, when the logic in loaning out the 30-year-old felt as flimsy as his medical history.
He ended up featuring in 20 Primera Liga games and seven times in the Champions League, filling in everywhere from central midfield to left- and right-back. His was admittedly a tidy rather than explosive presence but he offered Mourinho familiarity as well as an ally in increasingly difficult times.
"He's a great man, he is loyal to me, he is loyal to Chelsea, he was loyal to Madrid, he is loyal to everybody," said the manager. "He is a great man, a very good player and I see him now with special motivation. He went to Madrid because he was in a difficult situation here. He recovered his happiness and condition and played very important matches there, in Champions League semi-finals and finals in the Copa del Rey, and to a good level. We all know that he is not a 20-year-old boy any more, and we know the injuries were difficult for him, but he's the kind of player that will benefit a squad of many, many talented kids. He has big experience so he will be useful for us. He gives us balance and I know Michael better than anybody else."
The game at the Rajamangala national stadium was no real occasion to judge whether the recovery is nearing completion but Essien was aggressive in the tackle, energetic at each end of the pitch and gave his markers a buffeting.
The key question, inevitably, centred on those knees. "They are fine now," he said. "They are not giving me any problems. When you have injuries like those three it's hard to get back into a rhythm: I've had eight or nine operations on my knees now. I never thought I should stop playing – it never crossed my mind – but you just relax then start working hard to come back.
"I don't know if people gave up on me but I never had any fear. I don't have doubts when it comes to my career. I know that, wherever I go, I'll be happy. You'll never see me sad and I even enjoyed my time with the physios and the doctors, always kept smiling. I have two years left on my contract at Chelsea and we'll see what happens." That takes an optimistic outlook to new outlandish levels but the sentiment is clear. Essien is not one for defeatism.
It was heartening to see him back on Thursday, operating in partnership with Ramires and offering his team-mate – a younger model in all but frame – opportunities to spring upfield in attack.
"Going out on loan was a great thing for him, to enjoy a great season with Real Madrid after the unlucky injuries," said Petr Cech. "That loan made sure he played more than he could have played [for Chelsea] and, as you can see, he seems to be back to the real Michael Essien. That's thanks to the fact he's fit. It's the only secret because he's always been a fantastic player and the only unlucky things were the injuries."
Cleiton would verify, at the very least, that the strength of old remains. The Brazilian had been flattened and sent sprawling over the touchline, Mourinho holding out a hand to haul the All Stars' player back to his feet. "He had hit the wall," said the manager. A revived Essien will hope to floor a few more while wearing Chelsea colours over the year ahead.