Two looming tests, but Chelsea look untouchable

Chelsea, even on their off days, are starting to take on the look of champions in the marking.

Point by point, the lead is being stretched. Chelsea started the weekend seven ahead and ended it with a lead of eight. It feels a little at the moment like the Premier League’s runaway leaders are racing along a motorway, with special dispensation to do 20mph more than the rest of the traffic.

Antonio Conte, meanwhile, insists this title is no done deal. He harks back to times in Italy, where he both won and lost titles with four games to go in a season. And he rightly points out that with 16 matches to play, and 48 points up for grabs, this is a very long way off a done deal.

The difficulty for Chelsea’s chasing pack is this: they look invincible right now.

On Sunday, against Hull, Conte’s side had by any measure an off-day. The quick passing just wasn’t there, Eden Hazard looked like he had one leg in the treatment room, and things really didn’t properly gel. And yet still they found the net twice, without reply, in a match where they never really looked like dropping points.

The sage comment about such matters is that headline-grabbing wins over the top teams are not what makes champions: it is the dogged application to getting results against the rest of the pack that does it. But this version of Chelsea, the one that has existed since Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were recast as world-beaters, is doing both.

At their best, they are playing the most engaging and attractive version of the game presently seen in the Premier League. And at their worst, if you must call it that, there is a refusal to lay down which still grabs points. The one time both of those traits has been missing, at Tottenham earlier this month, Blues were rightly beaten. They had an off-night, but found their mojo straight away next time out.

The next two weeks, of course, bring new challenges. For the first time, the 3-4-3 will be tested by Liverpool at Anfield, and then by Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. Those two sides, and the way they tore apart Conte’s initial sketches of his Chelsea masterpiece, did more to form this ruthless machine than any other opponent.

Conte has almost two distinct jobs to do in the coming week. He has made much use of the fact Chelsea are out of Europe this season, applying the time to drilling this side to levels seldom seen in English football. And the fixture list now gives him the opportunity to exploit that schedule again.

Ultimately, if the tools were there, he would take one set of players and prepare them for the visit of Brentford in the FA Cup, and another to be schooled in an action plan to take to two title rivals in the space of five days.

The limited nature of his resources means there will be, by necessity, some overlap, but that is, by and large, what is expected to happen. Chelsea will lose more games this season. Were they not to, it would be an effort of such superhuman achievement, it is almost outside our general terms of reference to believe it possible. And the coming two league games look like being among the toughest left in the calendar.

But Chelsea have already put the work in to cushion the blow, and will remain top whatever happens in those games. Plus, should results go their way, they will truly start to look like champions in the making.

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