Kurt Zouma
Zouma completed a second 90 minutes since recovery from knee surgery Getty Images

Chelsea centre-back Kurt Zouma remains realistic over the timeline for his return to the first team, nine months after suffering a serious knee on his last senior appearance. The France international has made a gradual return to the game in recent weeks and on Monday [21 November] played the whole 90 minutes as a Blues Under-23 side beat Southampton 3-2 in the Premier League 2 clash at the club's Cobham training ground.

The team included captain John Terry, Cesc Fabregas, Michy Batshuayi and match-winner Marco van Ginkel, yet with the game representing just the second time Zouma has come through a full 90 minutes since his return the 22-year-old's fitness was the outstanding positive for the west London club. Zouma has not figured under Antonio Conte – since the Italian's arrival at Stamford Bridge – but a first team appearance is the last remaining hurdle facing the defender.

Zouma has been far from ostracised by Conte since his arrival at Chelsea and was even invited on the club's pre-season training camp in Austria during the summer in order to integrate him within the squad. Therefore, the ex-Saint-Etienne man has been receptive to Conte's cautious approach over his return which has been purposely delayed in order to allow him time to build up his fitness.

"I am very pleased to play another 90 minutes," he said, according to The Evening Standard. "I need to play, keep going and to work because I was out for a long time. I am very happy to play (for the Under-23s), I need game-time. I am used to being with the first team, but I am so lucky because I can play with the Under-23s and with a very good team. The skipper (Terry) is still there, he's still sharp and in good form. He did well. It's very good to get some advice from him."

Though Zouma missed the last three months of the campaign through injury, he was part of the Chelsea squad whose limp defence of their league title saw Jose Mourinho sacked as manager in December 2015. Upon his return, Zouma does not wish to let Conte down and wants to justify the faith shown in him by owner Roman Abramovich.

"I want to prove to the owner that he picked well when he chose Antonio Conte for the next three years," the Chelsea man added. "For me, that counts more than titles. It's not going to be easy (to finish top). There are six sides in the hunt for the title, one of them will win, three will go into the Champions League and the other two in the Europa League. This Premier League season is probably the hardest ever.

"We need to rival Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United. There is no other League in the world with such values of excellence. I'm happy, especially for the players, because being top is not only a reward for our work, but it also indicates that we are heading in the right direction. But we must not forget that a-month-and-a-half ago, after losing to Liverpool and Arsenal, the climate was gloomy."