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Manchester City Game Is a Major Frontier for Antonio Conte’s Improving Chelsea

When Antonio Conte’s switch of formation in early October brought about Chelsea’s current run of form, Bleacher Report looked at how it paralleled with another similarly impressive period in the club’s history.

The Blues had just thrashed Everton 5-0 to go top of the Premier League, and there was a sniff of Chelsea circa 2004 about the current crop.

Their run of seven wins in their last seven Premier League matches has brought about a nine-point swing in their favour over Manchester City, whom they face on Saturday. At the end of September, Chelsea were eight points behind Pep Guardiola’s side. Having lost back-to-back matches against title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal, the perception was they were already out of the reckoning.

But something changed; 3-4-3 was introduced, and Chelsea haven’t looked the same since. They’ve climbed their way to the top of the Premier League, where they sit a point above City and Liverpool, with their league position backing up the claims the Blues are England’s hottest side.

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Clive Rose/Getty Images Chelsea thrashed Everton to go top of the table in November.

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It was a similar story in October 2004, when the Blues lost 1-0 at the venue that would become known as theEtihad Stadium. It was a Nicolas Anelka penalty that delivered a first defeat of any sort for Jose Mourinho’s team, but rather than hold them back, it gave Chelsea a sense of freedom that had been lacking.

Mourinho’s Blues were unleashed of the burden of an unbeaten record and started scoring freelythey’d managed just eight goals in nine league games at that stage. From five points behind leaders Arsenal, within the next nine games, they were five above them and top heading into Christmas.

It was in that period that Chelsea won the title in 2004/05. It was then that they set about making themselves known as England’s dominant side.

Chelsea are returning to the Etihad on Saturday, and the intention echoes those feelings of old. It’s a different era with different players; the regime has changed, yet the scenario remains the same.

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PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images Guardiola’s City will be the ultimate test for Chelsea.

City versus Chelsea may only be each side’s 14th league game of the season, but it comes with a feeling of significance for Conte’s side. Which way will it swing? Will the winning run come to an end with defeat? Or can Chelsea return back to west London with points of any form?

If it’s the latter, we can start believing in this side’s ability to achieve something, as even with the run of form they’ve experienced, question marks still remain.

Admittedly, those doubts are as much about the teams that surround Chelsea as they are with the Blues. Looking at Liverpool, City and Arsenal, what they offer means we question the Stamford Bridge outfit’s ability to finish up as champions this term. We look at their strengths and compare them to Chelsea’s weak spots, sowing the seeds of doubt.

And then there’s the issue that the Blues completed 2015/16 by finishing in 10th place. We just don’t know how much of this run of form comes backed with the substance that will sustain it.

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GLYN KIRK/Getty Images Manchester United have been another high-profile scalp for Chelsea since they switched formation.

There have been answers already. The manner in which Manchester United and Everton were so ruthlessly dispatched has allowed Chelsea fans to believe they’re witnessing the club’s rapid return to the top. Winning those matches 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, the performances rank among the best we’ve seen from the club this decade in the Premier League.

Then there was Saturday’s victory against Tottenham Hotspur, when Chelsea came from behindthey conceded their first goal in just over 10 hoursto get one over their old foe. It was a display as much about spirit as it was tactical acumen.

All those performances have been at home. Now Chelsea have do it away against a side in the top half of the table. And this isn’t just any team. It’s CityGuardiola’s City. We know the aura that tag brings.

In terms of everything we’ve thrown at Chelsea, the doubts and praise, Saturday feels like a final frontier of sorts for this stage of the cycle in which we find them. Overcome the challenge, then this 3-4-3 with whichConte has become so enamoured will know no boundaries. The epiphany came after being 3-0 down to Arsenal at half-time. Things were changed, and the Blues ran their live test. This now feels like Chelsea are on the cusp of manifesting something altogether greater.

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Ian MacNicol/Getty Images Conte’s Chelsea continue to gather momentum. But can they overcome their biggest test against City?

It’s not about extending a run of form; it’s more about Chelsea cementing their position in the Premier League beyond this season, standing firm and not being a pushover.

To return to the 2004/05 campaign, at the height of entertainment news gossip Chelsea’s run of form on the back of the City loss, they traveled to Highbury to face Arsenal. Top by this stage, Mourinho’s players were still facing the Invincibles of the previous season, and they had to overcome everything that meant.

Chelsea drew 2-2, having twice trailed the Gunners. It wasn’t three points, but a draw showed that not even Arsenal could stop the Blues in their tracks and inflict defeat.

Titles are won in those moments. They are when momentum swings and belief grows, when barriers are raised to instil the resilience champions need.

Chelsea face all that at the Etihad on Saturday. In a roundabout way, it’s history repeating.

Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report’s lead Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on [email protected]

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2678583-manchester-city-game-is-a-major-frontier-for-antonio-contes-improving-chelsea

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