Chelsea manager Antonio Conte felt his side had passed a major examination by beating Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday but the Italian was not about to get carried away with talk of winning the Premier League, even after a seventh straight win.
Yet the way the leaders overcame this first real battle during their two-month resurgence, coming from behind to win 2-1 and end Spurs’ unbeaten record, did suggest his men have the stomach to fight all the way to regain the crown they surrendered last season.
“It’s too early to talk of the title. This league is very tough,” said Conte, who was his usual excitable self on the touchline during the match but cut a rather more measured figure afterwards with his side still a point clear at the top.
After a run of six straight league wins without even conceding a goal, Chelsea’s challenge was put to a stiff test when Spurs took an early lead at Stamford Bridge through a fine strike by Christian Eriksen.
Conte’s new system of playing with a three-man defence and giving his wingers the freedom to roam up came under severe strain as the visitors dominated the first half.
Spurs controlled central midfield through the muscular Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama and Dele Alli, who overran Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Yet after snatching a lifeline just before halftime when Spain winger Pedro equalised with a curling shot, Chelsea roared back to their best after the break with Victor Moses scoring the 51st minute winner after latching on to a cross from Diego Costa.
“This was a big test because for sure Tottenham is a really good team with great organisation,” Conte told reporters.
“They started better than us, with good intensity, with a lot of pressure. Also, they scored a fantastic goal. Then I liked a lot our reaction. It wasn’t easy.”
Yet Conte did concede that Chelsea were mentally stronger than earlier in the season when they lost successive league matches to Liverpool and Arsenal before setting off on their seven-match winning streak.
“Now we are another team. We have another type of confidence,” Conte said.
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino lamented how his side had played the better football but succumbed to Chelsea’s more ruthless streak. “It’s easy to explain. They were clinical in front of the goal and we weren’t,” Pochettino said.