Antonio Conte and Chelsea about to face big test of title credentials
The international break may have presented Chelsea with a two-week respite from competition, but with the majority of manager Antonio Conte's favoured players involved in World Cup qualifiers, the Italian will be hoping they all return injury free.
Having just lost the services of prolific striker Alvaro Morata to a hamstring problem, the last thing Conte needs is more members of his talented squad joining the Spain international on the sidelines.
If thinking about such possibilities wasn't enough for the boss to worry about, Chelsea's hectic fixture schedule brings concerns of a different kind. In the space of 22 days, they will play seven games across three different competitions. With action coming thick and fast in the Premier League, Champions League and League Cup, Conte will need to rotate his players to avoid fatigue -- but the question is where will his priorities lie?
Ordinarily, the sequence of matches and opponents in question -- Crystal Palace, Roma, Watford, Everton, Bournemouth, Roma and Manchester United -- would lend themselves to common sense and logic where team selection is concerned. However, things aren't that simple for Conte and Chelsea at the moment.
The outstanding 2-1 away win against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League put the Blues in early control of Group C, but the victory was forgotten a few days later as Conte's side were outplayed at home when losing 1-0 to Manchester City in the Premier League, the match which saw Morata limp off injured. The 24-year old has scored seven goals in seven appearances for Chelsea this season, and Conte now has to draw up a plan for life without him temporarily. Does he deploy Eden Hazard as a False No.9 or start Michy Batsyhuayi? How he must wish the board had brought in a third striker during the summer transfer window as he'd requested.
Manchester City's dominance in that win at Stamford Bridge was enough to suggest Chelsea cannot afford to drop too many more points at this stage of the campaign. They trail joint league leaders City and Manchester United by six points and while midfielder Cesc Fabregas claimed that Chelsea were eight points off the top last term and went on to win the title, he overlooked that Conte's side were not burdened by European competition.
Palace are rooted to the foot of the Premier League table without a point or a goal from seven games, dire form which suggests that Conte, with a tough-looking Champions League tie with Roma next up, could field a less experienced side at Selhurst Park. He can be confident his side could still take three points while keeping his key stars fresh for the clash with the Serie A giants.
Ordinarily, Kenedy, Charly Musonda, Ethan Ampadu, Dujun Sterling and Jake Clarke-Salter, youngsters who all featured in Chelsea's 5-1 League Cup win over Nottingham Forest last month, might all be considered for selection against Palace. The problem is, the Eagles have been a bogey team for the Blues of late, beating their London neighbours twice in as many seasons. Despite their appalling start they are due a result and a goal or two, and manager Roy Hodgson will be doing little else at the moment other than plotting how to give Conte grief.
In seasons gone by, a home game with Watford would be viewed as a three-point banker by Chelsea but the Hornets, despite a 6-0 hammering by Manchester City, are a different proposition under new manager Marco Silva and the Portuguese boss, like Hodgson at Palace, will be schooling his players in ways to stop the Blues playing.
Matches against Everton and Bournemouth present similar selection issues, though the League Cup fixture against the Toffees will almost certainly see Conte field a young side. The hectic sequence concludes with an away European tie with Roma and the visit of Jose Mourinho's United in the league. After seeing his charges battered 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last season, Mourinho will be determined to expose every perceived weakness in Conte's team in a bid to come away with a result.
Conte's problems are magnified by the fact the Blues' disciplinary record has been dreadful so far this campaign with skipper Gary Cahill, Fabregas and David Luiz all serving suspensions. A continuance of such poor temperament will only serve to worsen matters.
The Chelsea manager has joked in the past about having sleepless nights as he thinks about how to take his side forward. Right now it's possible insomnia is stalking him once again.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco