The Chelsea juggernaut rolls into Middlesbrough this weekend and Antonio Conte will be hoping his team can carry on from where they left off prior to the international break. A run of five wins with 16 goals scored and none conceded propelled the Blues to the upper reaches of the Premier League table. Now the aim is to stay as close to the summit as possible, which means coming away with maximum points from fixtures such as the one on Sunday.
The deployment of a back three has been the much discussed catalyst behind their upturn in fortunes though equally as valuable has been the fact that Conte has been able to select an unchanged team for the last four matches. Continuity when employing a new system is vital and the lack of midweek distractions has meant that squad rotation has not been necessary even if it has meant little action for those on the fringes.
Conte’s settled side, however, might be under a little threat against Middlesbrough with Diego Costa released prematurely from the Spain national team due to a groin problem. Eden Hazard also limped out of Belgium’s 8-1 thrashing of Estonia, which poses the prospect of Chelsea walking out at the Riverside Stadium without their two most dangerous players. Thankfully, the latest noises from the training ground suggest that both will be fully fit by kickoff on Sunday.
That is just as well as although Middlesbrough might be looking precariously placed at 15th in the table, they are not easily broken down with boss Aitor Karanka having clearly taken notes from his mentor Jose Mourinho when the pair were at Real Madrid. The Spaniard has constructed the meanest defence in the bottom half of the table and only four teams in the entire division. — Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal — have conceded less than Middlesbrough’s 12. Their form against the big boys has also been impressive this season with draws against both Man City and Arsenal in their last two away games. Chelsea will have their work cut out on Teeside.
That said, Chelsea will travel north brimming with confidence from their recent run, which has seen them breach previously stubborn defences with some style. Manchester United, Southampton and Everton all faced the Blues with back lines boasting decent reputations only to be subsequently dismantled 4-0, 2-0 and 5-0, respectively. In fairness, two of those contests were at Stamford Bridge though the win at St Mary’s, where Chelsea took an early lead and used that as a platform to execute the perfect away performance, should be used as a template against Middlesbrough.
While Sunday’s hosts might be well-organised at the back, their main deficiency lies at the other end where they have scored just 10 goals. Only Sunderland have netted fewer times and they are currently dead last in the table. With Chelsea’s defence earning five consecutive clean sheets, Conte will be confident of adding another, though, only if the in-form Cesar Azpilicueta recovers sufficiently after receiving a heavy tackle from Jamie Vardy during Spain’s 2-2 draw with England on Tuesday. Should he fail to make it then Conte will have to choose between Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Kurt Zouma to fill the gap. Conte had penciled in Terry and Zouma’s return to full match fitness from their respective injuries for after the international break though it remains to be seen if he is ready to risk either just yet.
Another selection decision that might pose a quandary is what Conte does with Costa, assuming the Spain international is fit. With the striker still just one yellow card away from suspension, the manager might just choose to give him the day off and ensure that he is available for the visit of Tottenham the following weekend. That would afford a rare start to Michy Batshuayi who, despite making a good early impression, has looked understandably rusty in his brief cameos of late. Perhaps giving the young Belgian a full 90 minutes against Middlesbrough would be a wise decision especially as Costa is unlikely to escape the cauldron of a match against Spurs without the booking that would rule him out of the next match, a trip to Man City.
But while juggling resources is clearly important, gaining three points from winnable games is even more vital to the club’s ambitions. And with Tottenham and Man City up next there can be no slip ups if an unlikely tilt at the title is to be realistically pursued.
Phil is one of ESPN’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.