Mourinho woe, luckless Lukaku and Chelsea youth make Blues fans bounce
After an intriguing and unusually uplifting international break for Chelsea supporters, there is a markedly positive vibe ahead of the return to Premier League action this Saturday, against West Brom at the Hawthorns.
Beating Manchester United last time out at Stamford Bridge certainly set the mood. Muting Jose Mourinho and shackling Romelu Lukaku had a schadenfreude aspect to it that kept Chelsea fans purring for days. Nobody would argue a case against Mourinho's achievements in his time as Chelsea manager, but the Special One has turned into the Sour One and the Portuguese just can't help himself when it comes to trying to wind up Antonio Conte.
Lukaku, who spurned the chance to come back to Stamford Bridge last summer, was kept quiet and could only look on as Alvaro Morata, the striker who filled the position reserved for him, scored the only goal of the game with a peach of a header.
That was just the beginning of the good news. From the unlikeliest of sources, there was more to follow. England manager Gareth Southgate decided to start two of Chelsea's brightest academy starlets, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham, in last Friday's friendly with Germany. Midfielder Loftus-Cheek, on loan at Crystal Palace, was named man of the match while striker Abraham also caught the eye. Both players also featured in Tuesday's friendly against Brazil.
While Loftus-Cheek, 21, and Abraham, 20, were grabbing attention at Wembley, another Blues youngster, Ethan Ampadu, was making waves in Wales. Having recently been handed a full Chelsea debut by Conte, 17-year old midfielder Ampadu was given a first international start by Welsh manager Chris Coleman in the 1-1 draw with Panama at the Cardiff City Stadium and duly impressed.
Chelsea supporters have always been keen to see academy players given the opportunity to progress from youth ranks to first team at the Bridge, but becoming an established star has proved elusive as a succession of managers have opted to buy in experience. The fact that both Southgate and Coleman had the belief and confidence to deploy Loftus-Cheek, Abraham and Ampadu will not have been lost on Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who has ploughed millions into developing the club's academy training facility at Cobham.
Abramovich has never been shy with his demands on managers and it will be interesting to see if there is a shift in emphasis to focus on playing home-nurtured talent in the coming year as opposed to trawling the transfer market.
One young Chelsea player who has potentially emerged as the breakthrough star at the Bridge this season is 21-year old centre-back Andreas Christensen, who signed from Danish club Brondby as a 15-year old and found his way into the Blues first team via the youth set up and a successful loan spell with Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach. Christensen, already an established member of the Denmark international team, scored for his country in the midweek World Cup playoff rout of Ireland in Dublin and is all set to increase his profile at the finals in Russia next summer.
Conte preferred Christensen to David Luiz for the high profile match with United and the Dane excelled to the point where it was widely remarked that he deserves to keep his place in the side for the West Brom game.
The match at the Hawthorns represents the first of a gruelling run of 13 fixtures for Chelsea between now and the end of the year. Conte therefore may take a closer look at the sequence and opposition and make his choice between Christensen and Luiz accordingly -- and that goes for the rest of his team selection.
The West Brom game is followed by a midweek 6,000-mile round trip to Azerbaijan and a Champions League match with Qarabag and then another away match beckons, this time with Liverpool. That's a tough schedule, fraught with danger.
Intensely physical contests can be expected with West Brom and Qarabag while Liverpool will no doubt end up being the usual high-octane encounter. Fortunately, Conte has sufficient options open to him right now to be able to rotate players to ensure fitness is maintained and the hope is key squad members can remain injury free and on the right side of referees -- something which has proved problematic this season.
Victory over West Brom would get the ball rolling and provide a further fillip for everyone connected with Chelsea, reaffirming the belief that the club is moving upwards.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco