Should Chelsea end September on a high against Manchester City on Saturday, their title rivals will feel rather concerned. Just like last season, head coach Antonio Conte is not sticking to the script. In fact, he is ahead of schedule compared to what many predicted.

Only six weeks ago, Chelsea were talked about as a team in crisis and the Italian’s future was again the subject of speculation.

In contrast to September 2016, when panic spread prematurely after consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, there was far more evidence this time.

Conte was dejected throughout the summer as the club struggled to acquire all his transfer targets.

A fractured ankle meant his best player, Eden Hazard, was not fit to start the season, and neither was Tiemoue Bakayoko, with a knee problem keeping the £40million summer signing out.

Diego Costa went on strike to force a move back to Atletico Madrid and there were pre-season defeats to Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Arsenal, on penalties, in the Community Shield.

Conte agreed a new contract in July but not the extension that had been in the pipeline after the title-winning campaign two months earlier.

The fixture list was not kind either, pitting Chelsea against four of last season’s top seven in the first seven matches, plus tricky games at Leicester and Stoke.

The one gimme appeared to be at home to Burnley on the opening day but not only did Chelsea lose but they had captain Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas sent off.

What could go wrong was going wrong; hardly ideal when trying to  bed in club-record signing Alvaro Morata and facing the prospect of playing in four competitions. Yet, Conte has overcome those problems, just as he did in his debut season here.

In Pictures | Atletico Madrid vs Chelsea | 27/09/2017

The Champions League victory over Atletico Madrid in midweek was arguably the most impressive of his reign, which is saying something, given he won the title in his first season.

Before a ball was kicked, Conte must have looked at the City game as a chance to assess where things stand. Now, the Italian knows that if they win, they go into the international break three points better off than after the same amount of games a year ago, with the added bonus of being in a dominant position in a difficult Champions League group.

Frank Lampard, who played for both Chelsea and City, is convinced the Chelsea boss is again proving his worth.

“You have to say that, all things considered, it’s been  an impressive start,” Lampard told Standard Sport. “We all heard the negative talk at the beginning of the campaign. I don’t know how much there was in it but there was a lot being said in pre-season — and that never helps. 

ES Analysis: Aletico Madrid vs Chelsea

“Chelsea lost to Burnley and suddenly there were questions about whether they would even make the top four. The Costa situation was a bad distraction but that has been put to bed now. 

“Credit must go to Conte because he is seemingly the kind of manager that just gets his head down and works, no matter what. There were rumblings over whether he was happy with the signings but he never takes his eyes off the ball at the training ground and the way he wants to set his team up. He just keeps going — and with the players he has, it brings results.

“Some managers react to bad moments and they change things or do things differently but he has his way and that serves him very well. Should Chelsea win — or even if they just draw with City — they have put themselves in a strong position.”

Both Manchester clubs have benefited from a kinder schedule at home and abroad but Chelsea trail the top two by only three points. Certainly, City and United have sparkled, with 21 and 17 goals respectively from six League games.

Former Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack watched the Blues dismantle Atletico on Wednesday and argues they are a team to be feared, too.

“I was really impressed with what they did against Atletico,” he said. “Now everyone knows that Chelsea are back and they have ambitions. This was not a result that just said a lot about what they can do in the Champions League — to win away at Atletico is tough for any team. 

“But it was also the way they won. They believed they could do it. They wanted to win and show they can win silverware this year. They came from behind, stayed calm — and that showed they are much further ahead than I thought. This should give them confidence going into such a big game.”

As Conte pointed out on Wednesday, Chelsea are at a disadvantage, given they got back from Madrid in the early hours yesterday, whereas City had a comfortable home game with Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday.

But N’Golo Kante said: “We go into the match on a high. We knew this was an important week for us and have started well with a win.”

Source: https://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/beat-manchester-city-and-chelsea-are-ahead-of-schedule-despite-unsettled-summer-a3646636.html