Fixture list set to test Chelsea's credentials

Posted by Phil Lythell

Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty ImagesHow sly will Jose Mourinho be about squad rotations with Chelsea playing seven games in 22 days?

Having entered the international break with four wins from their previous five games, Chelsea return from it knowing that they enter a run of fixtures that will test their fortitude as well as their finesse.

The games come thick and fast once again with seven games to negotiate in 22 days in a range of competitions, with none of the contests lacking in importance or allowing them an easy ride. It will provide the squad with a stern examination, and by the end there should be a far clearer picture of Chelsea’s current position in the footballing landscape, both domestically and in Europe.

Cardiff City are the first of these opponents. While some might dismiss the threat of a team newly arrived in the Premier League, their actual performances since moving up have forced observers to sit up and take notice. A 3-2 win over Manchester City is proof of their ability to upset the odds, and the Bluebirds’ last visit to West London earned them a 2-1 win at Fulham three weeks ago.

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Manchester City then come to Stamford Bridge on the following weekend for what will be an intriguing clash between teams hopeful of maintaining a genuine title challenge. Manuel Pellegrini’s men have had a topsy-turvy campaign thus far, succumbing to Cardiff and Aston Villa yet comprehensively beating Manchester United and Everton. With their players clearly raising their levels for the big games -- with the exception of their schooling by Bayern Munich -- it promises to be a tight and testing affair.

The long trip to face Newcastle at St James' Park -- where the Blues have enjoyed mixed fortunes in recent years -- is the next Premier League fixture on the agenda before Chelsea legend Steve Clarke brings his in-form West Bromwich Albion team back to the club where he made his name.

In among all those games is the small matter of a Champions League double-header against Schalke that will go a long way toward determining whether Chelsea repeat last season’s catastrophe of failing to qualify for the knockout stages or put things right by establishing themselves as the dominant team in the group.

The German side have exhibited Jekyll-and-Hyde form this season, winning just three of their eight Bundesliga matches but swatting aside both Steaua Bucharest and FC Basel in Europe to put them top of the pile in Group E. Chelsea require at least four points from the two meetings to start changing things in their favour, but Julian Draxler and Co will not be overcome easily.

And then there is the small matter of a Capital One Cup tie against Arsenal. Nine thousand Chelsea supporters will be making the trip across London to meet their rivals, underlining the gravity of the fixture irrespective of the competition. Unfortunately, with Tottenham also being drawn at home in the fourth round, the two matches cannot be played on the same evening due to the proximity of the North London stadia, and the ensuing strain on police resources means Chelsea will take the field at the Emirates barely 48 hours after their match with Man City.

But that might be a blessing in disguise for Jose Mourinho. The manager will be forced into making several changes, a situation that should allow players currently on the fringes of his thinking the opportunity to impress. The likes of Cesar Azpilicueta, Willian, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand, Demba Ba and John Obi Mikel have all been starved of game time this campaign, and it would allow Mourinho the chance to field an experimental lineup while still retaining enough experience to earn victory over the Gunners.

For that fixture, an overhaul of the first XI can be expected, though throughout the period Mourinho will be compelled to rotate his players cleverly to extract the maximum from the matches in front of him. Due to the condensed nature of the fixture list, relying on a set first-choice XI for the entirety of the three weeks would surely be folly irrespective of their ability, and the full use of the squad will be essential to any success attained.

It could allow the manager to answer the much-asked question as to why so few attacking midfielders have been stockpiled when other areas of the squad appeared to command more reinforcement. The past two seasons have seen Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar play an inordinate number of games for the lack of any replacements of similar stature. With a strong supporting cast now assembled, perhaps the burden can be shared without standards on the pitch slipping by any discernible margin.

Of course, the players selected will have to take their opportunity when it is given to them, but that in itself is not a bad thing. Mourinho is still learning about his squad and the individual roles within it. Competitive games are the only true method by which to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the Special One will have a better idea of who he can place his faith in once the next round of international fixtures rolls around next month.

It is not quite make-or-break time for Chelsea, but by 5 p.m. on Nov. 9, Blues fans will have a more accurate idea of whether they need to rein in their expectations for the campaign or begin to dream.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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