The story of the season is rapidly becoming a tale of exploits in adversity. For a division that likes to believe it possesses some of the brightest stars in the footballing galaxy, the Premier League may be determined by a simple test: which side fare best without their finest player?
Manchester United's best, Cristiano Ronaldo, left last summer. Arsenal's two premier performers, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, are both injured now. Liverpool's challenge disintegrated when either or both of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were sidelined. Now Chelsea are under the microscope. The significance of January has long been apparent. The African Cup of Nations has stripped them of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, just as it did two years ago.
Chelsea cannot plead ignorance of its existence, but Drogba's brilliance this season makes it still more damaging to their hopes. The theory has long been that the fixture list has favoured them when they need it to. Their hosts today, Hull, plus Sunderland, Birmingham and Burnley might not form the most fearsome quartet of opponents. Yet Hull and Burnley have proved hard to beat at home while Birmingham are difficult to overcome anywhere. Moreover, Chelsea have dropped points in four of their past six games.
Now Drogba faces Burkina Faso on Monday instead of Hull today. He reached 19 goals by the end of December while Ivory Coast coach Vahid Halilhodzic criticised Chelsea for fielding their top scorer so often. It is another implied indication of his importance. Minus the incomparable battering ram, Chelsea may require a change of shape as well as a change of emphasis. Assuming Nicolas Anelka recovers from a hamstring problem, he will spearhead the attack but Carlo Ancelotti is pondering a reversion to Chelsea's default system for much of the past five seasons.
"I think this will be the ideal solution," he said. "Using one forward, Anelka, with Deco and Joe Cole behind and Frank Lampard." If Deco and Cole are less wingers than Arjen Robben and Damien Duff were, it is nonetheless 4-3-3 rather than the 4-4-2 Ancelotti has favoured so far. It makes Anelka imperative. While Florent Malouda provides an alternative to the Portuguese, Chelsea are short of striking cover.
With Kalou in Angola alongside Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro allowed to leave in August - though neither has been missed - the only alternatives are untried: Fabio Borini, yet to score in a first-team game, and Daniel Sturridge, whose only first-team goals for Chelsea came in last week's 5-0 thrashing of Watford. Either, then, has the opportunity to become this season's Federico Macheda, the unknown who exerts a pivotal role in the title race.
Hull can testify to the difference proven match-winners make. They were drawing 1-1 at Stamford Bridge well into injury-time in the opening fixture of the Premier League season before Drogba determined it Chelsea's way. Thirteen days ago, a spirited performance against Manchester United threatened to yield a point until an inspired Wayne Rooney condemned them to defeat. They may face an unfamiliar opponent today, with the possibility the 21-year-old Serbian Nemanja Matic will anchor the Chelsea midfield. But then this is the time to discover if Ancelotti really does have reserves of strength. @Email:email@example.com Hull City v Chelsea, 4.45pm, Showsports 1&2