LONDON • Antonio Conte says Chelsea have exceeded expectations this season, but the Italian manager is confident his side will use their experience to avoid succumbing to the pressure of being top of the Premier League table.
After a shaky start, Chelsea, who finished 10th last season, have gone on an astonishing 11-game winning streak, which has seen them open up a six-point gap at the summit after 17 games.
"Not one person thought or forecast that Chelsea would stay top of the table, for many reasons," Conte told the British media.
"Because the squad was the same as last season's. Because our (summer transfer) market wasn't a great market. We found the right balance, we are working well.
"But now we are only two games away from halfway through the season. So, for this reason, we must have the right pressure. These players, in the past, have had the habit of staying top of the table.
MISSING KEY DUO
1st The Chelsea hotshot leads the scorers' chart with 13 goals.
3rd The Blues' enforcer, with 53 tackles, is behind only Idrissa Gueye (77) of Everton and Jordan Henderson (66) of Liverpool.
"I don't trust the people when they say, 'There's pressure when you're top.' I prefer the pressure of being top of the table. We earned this position. Now it's important to keep it. It's not the first time for me or my players."
Chelsea will hope to extend their winning streak when they host 10th-placed Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
However, they will be without suspended pair Diego Costa and N'Golo Kante.
Nevertheless, Conte is keen to see how his side cope with the absence of the striker and midfielder and may change his favoured 3-4-3 formation.
Costa, the league's leading scorer with 13 goals, and Kante have featured in all of Chelsea's league games this season, but the manager said: "This team showed in the past that we can play with different formations. It can be an option."
The Italian would not be drawn on whether he would hand striker Michy Batshuayi his first league start since his £33 million (S$58.5 million) move from Marseille.
"For the young player to adapt, it's very difficult," Conte said. "I think Michy is working very well. We must have patience with him. The next step is to play more in this season."
He described his opposite number Eddie Howe, who has steered Bournemouth to 10th place, as "a really good manager".
"I like him and have great respect for him. If he continues in this way, he can become a manager of a great team," he said. "I have studied Bournemouth and they are a good team, with good organisation. They always try to play from the back and put on good pressure."
Despite Conte's slight concerns, Jose Mourinho, his opposite number at Manchester United, feels Chelsea's philosophy and strength this season will make them very hard to beat in the title race.
The Portuguese said it would be very difficult for United to catch Chelsea, who are 13 points ahead.
The 53-year-old, who was sacked by Chelsea last December after a torrid run, says the style in which they close out games means they will not drop many points from now until the end of the season in May.
Mourinho told Sky Sports News HQ: "They score one goal and they win, they defend a lot, they defend well, they are winning and in the last 20 minutes they bring defenders in, they don't care what people say, what people think, they just want to win.
"And because of that, I don't see them losing many points."
REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON
CHELSEA V BOURNEMOUTH
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