Chelsea and Conte plot Arsenal revenge after last season's FA Cup woe
Having ended 2017 in the best possible way by thrashing sorry Stoke 5-0 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea travel across London to face Arsenal at the Emirates in what will be the first of three meetings between the clubs this month.
Wednesday's Premier League encounter and a two-legged Carabao Cup semifinal tie give Blues boss Antonio Conte the perfect opportunity to finally lay the ghost of last season's disappointing FA Cup final loss to the Gunners to rest.
Victory in the league game will consolidate third-placed Chelsea's position in the Champions League berths and hamper fifth-placed Arsenal's chances of automatic qualification for Europe's elite competition, while booking a return trip to Wembley will give Conte another crack at winning silverware at the home of English football.
Against Stoke, Conte opted to rest creative talisman Eden Hazard, while former Gunners midfielder Cesc Fabregas also had the afternoon off. Both players will be expected to make the Italian's starting XI at the Emirates though the inclusion of Hazard will likely see Willian -- man of the match against the Potters -- drop to the bench. The Brazil international, who provided two assists as well as scoring a penalty in the rout of Mark Hughes' side, looks to be back to his best and it must be frustrating for him not to be considered a first team regular.
Similarly, Pedro, who also scored against Stoke, could also find himself among the substitutes if Conte opts to start with a five-man midfield against Arsenal. Should he do so, N'Golo Kante is certain to anchor Chelsea's midfield with Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko set to be his partners in the centre of the park. Danny Drinkwater, who put in an excellent display against Stoke playing alongside his former Leicester City teammate, has valid claims to retain his place.
Following his £35 million deadline day transfer to Stamford Bridge at the outset of the campaign, injury curbed Drinkwater's chances of making an impression on Chelsea supporters. Now fully fit, the 27-year-old who also found the net against Stoke on Saturday has certainly done that. Many fans think that when Conte goes with a 3-5-2 tactical set-up (his preference now for big games as opposed to 3-4-3) Drinkwater provides greater solidity than Bakayoko. The 23-year-old is still finding his feet in the top flight following his summer move from Monaco.
One player with no such problems is Andreas Christensen who has slotted seamlessly into Conte's centre-back three in place of injured and out of favour David Luiz. Denmark international Christensen, 21, has swiftly won the hearts and minds of Chelsea supporters with a series of cultured displays and his renewed availability following illness which forced him to miss the routine Boxing Day win over Brighton gives Conte additional options at the back.
An unused substitute against Stoke, Christensen could be in line for a recall against Arsenal and given that Cesar Azpilicueta is virtually un-droppable, one of Gary Cahill or Antonio Rudiger would have to make way to accommodate him. Rudiger was yet another player to score against Stoke and the Germany international credibly offers greater physicality and mobility than Cahill though he lacks the 32-year-old's craft and guile.
As with midfield, it's an intriguing conundrum for Conte to solve though the Chelsea manager must be delighted to have such alternatives to consider.
It remains to be seen whether or not Chelsea will make any signings during the transfer window that would further complicate the puzzle. Surely, bringing in a back-up striker for Alvaro Morata would be a priority over strengthening defence or midfield. Whatever transpires in the next few weeks, right now Conte seems content to declare he is "very happy" to work with his squad as it is and that he is also happy with the commitment and behaviour of his players.
Conte always gives the impression that he is in full control of a dressing room where there is no place for one-upmanship. This being the case, whatever starting XI he finally settles on to face Arsenal, there is no doubt his players will be totally up for the challenge and Chelsea supporters could not ask for more than that.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco