Form and fixtures give Chelsea chance to prove doubters wrong
Having secured a deserved point from Saturday's enthralling encounter with Liverpool at Anfield, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has every reason to feel positive about the Blues' upcoming, if somewhat cluttered, fixture schedule.
In the race for the Premier League title, the 1-1 draw on Merseyside may have seen third place Chelsea fall behind Manchester United and leaders Manchester City, who both won at the weekend, but Conte will pay no heed to the many pundits claiming the club's chances of retaining the trophy they won in fine style last season are all but over.
With Liverpool out of the way, the Italian will be eyeing the Blues' run of league games to the end of the year with relish. Swansea (home), Newcastle (home) West Ham (away) Huddersfield (away), Southampton (home), Everton (away), Brighton (home) and Stoke (home) have to be viewed as a significant opportunity to harvest the full 24 points available. It won't be easy -- it never is. But Conte proved last year when Chelsea won 13 top flight matches in a row that winning streaks can be put together, and his side are already on a decent run of form which has brought four wins and a draw from their last five league outings.
Reeling in Manchester City, who have an 11-point advantage over Chelsea, may seem like a tall order for Conte, but City have a showdown with near neighbours Manchester United looming on the horizon, and they also face Tottenham before the year is out.
The Blues' boss has an excellent squad of players to work with. And while good fortune will play a part in Chelsea's stars remaining injury-free, there is no need to rely on luck when it comes to team selection and tactics. Conte's tactical nous and shrewd use of substitutes has paid dividends on countless occasions, and his relentless work ethic sees him constantly striving to find ways to give his side the edge.
At Anfield, Conte set Chelsea up perfectly to counter Liverpool's high-tempo pressing game and stifle the threat posed by the top flight's leading scorer, Mohamed Salah. The recent shift from 3-4-3 to 3-5-1-1, which has stealthily corresponded with the Blues' upswing in form, was deployed once more and worked perfectly until calamity struck, and the Italian will have been left as frustrated as many Blues fans were by Tiemoue Bakayoko's error that afforded Salah the opportunity to add to his tally and give the Reds the lead.
Such mistakes come with inexperience, and 23-year old Bakayoko is painfully still finding his feet in England following his high-profile £40 million summer move from Monaco. Conte clearly believes in the young France international's ability, but that hasn't spared the player from being on the receiving end of the now expected spate of vitriolic criticism that speedily gets whipped up on social media in the wake of a poor performance.
Ironically, it was Willian, another recent target for the Internet boo-boys, who for the second time in a week proved his worth to Chelsea. Having started, scored twice and won two penalties that were converted in Wednesday night's 4-0 Champions League rout of Qarabag in Baku, Willian came off the bench at Anfield and leveled the match with a spectacular goal. The Brazil international is certain to be given plenty more minutes over the coming weeks as Conte looks to minimise the risk of fatigue and injury to star man Eden Hazard, and it will be no surprise to see the 29-year old's name among Chelsea's goal-scorers.
As well as a busy Premier League program, before the year is out Conte also needs to plan for Chelsea's final Champions League Group C match and a League Cup quarterfinal tie with Bournemouth. The Blues face Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge knowing that victory will guarantee top place and a potentially more favourable opponent in the round of 16. Such a scenario means Conte is unlikely to be satisfied by the fact that Chelsea have already qualified for the next phase of the competition. He will be expected to field a full strength side against Atleti and give Blues youngsters such as Ethan Ampadu and Charly Musonda another chance to shine at the Bridge against Bournemouth in the League Cup.
With FA Cup involvement set for January, come the New Year, Conte will be aiming to ensure that Chelsea are still in full contention for the four trophies they set out to contest at the start of the campaign. Between now and then there's a lot of football to be played, and there is every reason to be very optimistic about the Blues' chances of winning silverware. This season is far from over.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco