LONDON // The mystery of why Didier Drogba did not start in Chelsea's tame 2-0 defeat at Liverpool has been explained.
The Ivory Coast striker has been battling to overcome the debilitating effects of malaria.
That is bad news for the 31-year-old Drogba and the champions, but a source of some relief for Chelsea's rivals in the Premier League title race.
Even though Carlo Ancelotti, the manager, argues that he is happy with the depth of his squad - only last week he insisted he would not be in the market to sign Liverpool's Fernando Torres in January because he was satisfied with his strike force - the Italian still accepts his side are at their most powerful when the Ivorian leads their line.
Ancelotti may now review his stance if Drogba's stamina to sustain the season is now under serious threat.
Indeed, as Torres strutted his stuff in Liverpool's 2-0 win over Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday, with the Spaniard scoring both goals, it was obvious that the London side missed Drogba much more than they missed Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, their other absentees.
Only when Drogba came off the bench did Chelsea start to look the sort of force they have been in the first phase of the season.
It begged the question: why did Ancelotti not go to Anfield with all guns blazing and play Drogba from the start in a match in which Chelsea could have established serious daylight between themselves and their stumbling rivals at the top of the table?
Now we know.
Ancelotti explained: "Didier was not feeling well ahead of the game [against Liverpool] and we found out on Monday night why, when blood tests showed he had malaria.
"I don't know where he got it from."
Two seasons ago Kolo Toure, Drogba's fellow Ivory Coast star, was diagnosed with malaria while playing for Arsenal.
Ancelotti insists that Drogba should be fit enough to start against Fulham at Stamford Bridge tonight. But it will now be intriguing to see just how much Drogba's physical, all-action style suffers from the illness.
"He has had a problem," Ancelotti said. "He has this virus and, obviously, he lost power and training.
"He lost his condition. He's had treatment and now he's OK.
"He'll come back immediately in the best condition.
"He had malaria. He had the tests in the last day, and they showed this kind of virus. Now he's good," the manager added.
"The illness is not contagious. One time it was a serious disease, but now it is a little different. You can treat it very well and move on quickly."
Chelsea's title aspirations could well rest heavily on such an optimistic prognosis.
11.45pm, AD Sports 3