Lukaku and Everton a test of Conte and Chelsea's title credentials
Chelsea's home fixture with Everton on Saturday evening will provide a further measure of success regarding manager Antonio Conte's revised tactical set up which has seen the Italian adopt the 3-4-3 formation he favoured during his time in charge of Juventus and the Italy national team.
Conte rang the changes following late September's 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal, and the Blues responded with four straight Premier League wins in October which catapulted the team to fourth place in the table, just one point behind leaders Manchester City.
Coming at the end of a week of Champions League action in which Chelsea have been nothing more than frustrated spectators, with a return to European competition a key priority, Conte will have set his team the objective not only of beating Everton to keep last month's momentum towards automatic qualification going but also keeping another clean sheet.
Chelsea conceded nine goals in their first six league games but following a shift to a three man defence of Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill -- aided by two speedy wing-backs in Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso -- goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has yet to be beaten.
In midfield, N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are not only shielding the backline but also skilfully advancing play, while further forward Pedro, Eden Hazard and the top flight's leading scorer Diego Costa have proved to be a potent force that opposition defences are finding difficult to contain at the moment.
A stable lineup and players who clearly understand the manager's game plan have been critical success factors for Chelsea in recent weeks, and despite the return from injury of John Terry and Willian from compassionate leave, Conte resisted tweaking his lineup last time out against Southampton.
For the game with Everton, it's almost impossible to see one of Azpilicueta, Luiz or Cahill being benched to accommodate Terry. The 35-year-old veteran had a poor game when skippering Chelsea in last week's EFL Cup defeat against West Ham, and with fellow centre-back Kurt Zouma continuing his comeback from a long-term knee injury, Terry's chances of getting back into the first team look slim.
Willian has far more pressing claims to being restored to Conte's starting XI. The indefatigable Brazil international has been one of Chelsea's most consistent performers since he signed for the club in August 2013 and had he made the most of a gilt-edged opportunity to score when replacing Pedro for the final phase of Sunday's 2-0 win at Southampton, it would be difficult for Conte to justify benching him for the Everton game.
That Willian miss and Chelsea's sparkling form in all areas of play suggests it will be a case of as you were for Conte against the Merseysiders.
One Everton player that will be motivated above and beyond his teammates to end Chelsea's winning streak is striker Romelu Lukaku. Discarded by former Blues boss Jose Mourinho, there had been plenty of rumours linking the hulking Belgium international with a move back to Stamford Bridge this summer but these dissipated when the London club splashed out £33 million on Lukaku's countryman, Michy Batshuayi. With Costa in the form of his life, Batshuayi has had to be content with a place on the Chelsea bench -- a peril that no doubt Lukaku will have warned his fellow 23-year-old about.
Chelsea's ability to keep Lukaku, who has seven Premier League goals to his name already this season, at bay will be an important factor in determining the outcome of this game. That said, Conte's side are in irresistible form and in Costa they have the game's likely match-winner. Refreshingly, the Brazil-born Spain international has kept a lid on his fiery temper in recent weeks, though with four yellow cards to his name Costa remains one booking away from a one-match ban.
Given that Chelsea's next three opponents after Everton are Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Manchester City, it will be interesting to see if the 28-year old somehow manages to get booked on Saturday, thereby missing the Boro game but ensuring he is back with a clean slate for the "big" matches with fellow title-chasers Spurs and City.