Pre-Christmas fixture list could set up Chelsea for another lengthy unbeaten streak
As the full squad returns to the training ground at Cobham, Chelsea can look ahead to a tranche of benign fixtures that could prove telling for the rest of their campaign. Already nine points behind Manchester City, their title hopes might already be slim but a good run now might just help eat into the gap and at least take a big step towards a top-four finish.
For the third time in a row, this Saturday will see Chelsea play an away game immediately following an international break. The previous two have seen contrasting results with a 2-1 win at Leicester in September followed by a damaging 2-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in October. West Bromwich Albion's wretched form that has seen them fail to win a league game since August might present them as easy opponents but similar thoughts prevailed ahead of the ill-fated Palace game last month. Chelsea have had mixed fortunes at the Hawthorns in recent years, though they will surely be drawing on last season's title-clinching victory there in the run up to the game.
The squad travel east to face Qarabag a few days later, which, in theory, should be rather straightforward following their naive performance in the 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge in September. Since then, however, they have secured consecutive draws with Atletico Madrid and shown they will be no pushovers. Nevertheless, victory would guarantee Chelsea's place in the knockout stages and they will be expected to deliver.
The one thing that might complicate things ahead of the trip to Azerbaijan is the fact that on the following Saturday they face Liverpool at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp's side might be a little frail on the road but they have been strong at home with just once goal conceded in five games. With former Blues Mohamed Salah, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke in their ranks, they will have extra motivation to beat their modern rivals.
Get through the Anfield examination unscathed and things will start to look a little gentler for Chelsea. Struggling Swansea then come to West London where they will not be allowed to field their primary striker, Tammy Abraham, against his parent club. Swansea have caused problems at Stamford Bridge before, though a home win should be penciled in next to this fixture.
The visit of Newcastle at the start of December is usually a noisy affair due to their boisterous travelling contingent but with it featuring the return of Rafael Benitez to the club that didn't exactly take him to their hearts, the atmosphere in all corners of the ground will be interesting to observe this time around. For his part, Benitez has got his team very well organised and he will be determined to get one over his former employers. It should be fascinating.
Chelsea's last Champions League group game takes place on the ensuing Tuesday when they host Atletico Madrid. Antonio Conte's side will still have something to play for even if it is only to decide who tops the group while the Spanish side might already be out. With any luck, Diego Simeone will rest his stars and turn his concentration to La Liga.
The final three Premier League games before Christmas gets into full swing are all tricky but eminently winnable. First is a short trip across London to play West Ham, always a difficult fixture despite their poor form this season. With David Moyes now in charge they should be less brittle than before, though Chelsea will hope to have enough quality to find a way through.
Then there's another away match, a rare trip to Huddersfield to play David Wagner's impressive team. Having already beaten Manchester United this season, they can be a tough nut to crack on their own patch. Tottenham, however, showed the blueprint with a 4-0 win at the John Smith's Stadium and Conte will want his team to follow suit.
Finally, Chelsea brace themselves for the festive period with a home match against a solid but unthreatening Southampton side. On paper, this should be tight but if Chelsea are in any kind of form going into this one they will be heavily fancied to take all three points.
All in all, if the Blues can hit the ground running at West Brom this weekend, the fixtures over the next month could see them go on a similar run to the one they went on at this time last year. Twelve months ago their winning streak laid the foundations for Premier League glory. A repeat of results might not quite do the same this time if Man City keep steamrolling their opponents but at least Chelsea could help keep the title race interesting.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.