Antonio Conte believes it is too soon for Sir Alex Ferguson or anyone else to write off Chelsea’s Premier League title chances.
Chelsea beat Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United 4-0 last Sunday, but former United boss Ferguson suggested the 2014-15 champions were not one of five teams in title contention this term.
The Blues have played nine games, which included losses to Arsenal and Liverpool, and Conte believes he needs eight to 10 more games before setting a goal for the end of the season in a competitive top flight.
“It’s very difficult to tell now our target,” the Chelsea head coach said.
“Because it’s early and in these games, we had difficulty against Arsenal and Liverpool.
“For this reason it’s important not to look at the table. It’s important to understand this type of work we’re doing now is good to improve and to become a strong team.
“A bit of time in the future, yes, after I think eight, 10 (more) games, I can tell our target.”
Conte insisted he respects Ferguson’s opinion, but refused to put limitations on what his squad can achieve with hard work.
“I respect a lot what he said, but I know that we are working very well,” the former Juventus and Italy boss added.
“I think now we are now in a good way to improve a lot and to become a team that can stay (in contention) till the end to get something.
“Our ambition must be always to play to win every game. Always. It’s important.
“I try to transfer this to my players in every moment, in every day, every week, in every game.
“We must be ambitious. But to be ambitious you must work a lot.”
Conte was asked if Chelsea, beaten in the EFL Cup at West Ham on Wednesday, were ahead of schedule in terms of his expectation levels, almost four months into the job.
He added: “I’m very happy for the work that we are doing. And I’m sure that if we continue in this way, we can have good satisfaction for our work.
“It’s important now to be focused on the work during the training session, on the game, game by game and to try to improve in every game.
“And to be ambitious, to work for the maximum always. You can reach this (aim) or not, but it’s important to work a lot with this target.”
One player matching Conte’s high demands is N’Golo Kante, who against United scored his first Chelsea goal since his £30 million summer switch from Leicester.
Conte, who admitted he was not aware of Kante before his influential season with the Foxes, described the France international as “a complete midfielder”.
He praised his attacking play, as well as his defensive work, but wishes for Kante to be positionally disciplined.
“He’s a complete midfielder, not only a defensive midfielder,” Conte said.
“You can see in the last three games of the championship (against Hull, Leicester and United), N’Golo could score three goals.
“He’s a player that always arrives in the box. He has fantastic stamina, also good technique, good positioning, good personality. He’s a very good player.
“He can play box to box, but I prefer to respect the position.”
Kante operates well in Conte’s favoured 3-4-3 system, where the head coach demands continual pressure on the opposition.
One player who struggled in the system with his first experience of it on Wednesday was John Terry, who was making his first appearance after more than six weeks out with an ankle problem.
Terry is expected to return to the substitutes’ bench against Southampton on Sunday, with Conte adamant that his influence remains important, but his captaincy does not make the defender immune from omission.
“My decisions are only for the best for the team, for the club and to win,” Conte said.
“If one player is captain or vice-captain, it’s not important.
“It’s important to find the right solution to take the best decision for the team, in this moment.”