Chelsea stranglehold on title could come down to keeping Diego Costa onside
How Conte handles Chinese interest and a training bust-up with striker will be key to success this year
As Antonio Conte sat back down for his Friday session with the Sunday newspapers, a little less than fresh after half-an-hour discussing the obvious, someone tried to get the manager's attention by calling his name. Or, at least, what they thought was his name.
"Diego," came the call.
The mind-tricking similarities between surnames 'Costa' and 'Conte' apart, it was a fitting Freudian slip that showed just how much the striker still looms over everything to do with Chelsea, just how big an issue it remains despite the manager trying to wave it away.
It may yet be the biggest factor in this title race, either way. That is the deeper significance of the Costa affair, beyond the player's future and the usual transfer farrago.
Because up until last week, everything seemed to be going so swimmingly for Chelsea. Conte (inset) had found a near-perfect and unbeatable formation, that was finalised - in so many ways - by how well Costa worked for it. He completed the system with the way he was willing to work in that lone striker role, but while still able to finish so frequently and with moments of such significance.
Then just two days after Tottenham Hotspur ended their long winning run, the defeat was compounded as Chelsea suffered their first truly bad moment of the season. The Costa story broke, and there was at last a bit of doubt and anxiety about the previously relentless league leaders. At least temporarily.
Conte's side swept those feelings away with a brilliant 3-0 win at Leicester City but, as impressive as that was in the circumstances, one-off victories in adversity aren't necessarily a future winning formula.
Even a side as supreme as Chelsea, after all, won't get too many games when their left wing-back scores a rare goal early on to immediately ease issues against supine opponents, as was the case at the King Power. And on the occasions when that doesn't happen - the majority of matches - Costa is more often than not the player to step up.
The stats fully emphasise that importance. Costa was joint top scorer with Alexis Sanchez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on 14 goals before this weekend but way ahead of both in terms of the significance of those goals. With two decisive equalisers and six outright match-winners in the league this season, the Spanish international's strikes have been directly responsible for 14 points, compared to nine from Ibrahimovic and a mere four from Sanchez. Unlike three of Harry Kane's goals that led to five points, meanwhile, none of Costa's have been penalties.
The 28-year-old seems to have honed that rare Eric Cantona-like quality for suddenly producing something very valuable out of nothing. The innovative match-winners against West Ham United, Middlesbrough, West Brom and Crystal Palace were all classic examples of this, and all resembled specific Cantona strikes from the 1993 to 1996 period.
That is why, on New Year's Eve, Mark Hughes so praised Costa as Conte's single most important player. "You wouldn't want Chelsea to lose him because that could significantly damage their ability to win the league," the Stoke City manager said.
That is also why it was so necessary that Conte solves this issue, to restore the side's sense of assurance.
It was still a strange week in that sense, with plenty of double-think about this single issue. When the story first broke last Friday week, for example, numerous sources close to the Chelsea squad were playing down the account of a back injury, and playing up an offer from the Chinese Super League amid reports that Costa had a heated discussion with the fitness coach. By Saturday afternoon, though, the official club line was very clearly that the top scorer was merely injured.
There had been significant developments in between, of course. Cesc Fabregas and John Terry had been two senior players who worked to talk Costa around, to really press on him the potential glory of winning the league together again, leading to the striker posting on Instagram on Friday evening with the comment, "Come on Chelsea!!!"
Costa then spoke with Conte on Tuesday, and the feeling around the whole club was much more positive. In his press conference for today's home match against Hull City the manager was speaking as if this was the most routine injury story in football.
"His pain in his back . . . he hasn't any pain in his back [any more]. For this reason he's available," he said.
"He's very happy to play with us. This idea [of China] is far [away] in his mind."
The sheer tunnel vision of Conte's comments were impressive in the circumstances, and he remained impervious to any further questions about the offer from Tianjin Quanjian or any controversy. They also cannily served a purpose.
Conte's public words re-emphasised his private message that Chelsea must stay on track, must keep focused, that this is just a hurdle to be overcome. It is the relentlessness the manager has become widely admired for.
The anticipated clean slate for Costa also reflects a lot about the player too.
First of all, there is that infamous hot head, but also how quickly it cools. There is one story from his time at Atletico Madrid, for example, when Costa had the kind of blazing row with Diego Simeone that could well have ended his time at the club. Except, both came in the next day as if nothing had happened.
That is because those who know the striker well, and know his value, also know it's all heat-of-the-moment stuff that is rarely meant. It's just his character, and those intermittent individual incidents are more than offset by how he is most days of a season. Costa is a hugely popular player around the Chelsea training ground, where his general enthusiasm and fun-loving nature are hugely appreciated. He throws himself into any squad activities, like when David Luiz started to perform with a magician after the West Brom game, learning how to do tricks. This is all despite the fact he went so long without knowing some of his teammate's names, and still can't speak English.
Costa can't actually pronounce 'John Terry', so just refers to him as "hay capitan". When interviewed by media, he also comes across as genuine and down-to-earth, while always speaking with creditable frankness.
All of this serves as just one other reason, beyond his goals, why the Chelsea players were so determined to keep him. He is hugely important to the kind of positive atmosphere that Conte feels is paramount, and that was so evident after Chelsea's joyous third goal against Leicester.
"The right spirit is the fundamental importance if you want to have a good season," the Italian said. "The most important thing, for me. It's not easy to create and, before creating this spirit, you have to pass different steps. But I'm pleased to see this unity in my team."
The next step, however, necessitates Costa staying as happy as he's been. That could potentially be why this week has longer-term consequences. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that we haven't seen as many indications of that infamous temper on the pitch of late, since everything has gone so well for Costa. When things are a little rockier, though, that rage tends to come out much more. Will the events of the last week change anything, or change his form?
That's hard to say, but a further potential problem is that Chelsea wouldn't have easy solutions if it did happen. Conte has so far proven reluctant to use the only other first-team striker, Michy Batshuayi, in the same role. He instead played the admittedly effervescent Pedro there against Leicester, but that isn't really a medium-term alternative, and reflects some patchy summer planning. Given how often Costa has been suspended, it's surely a no-brainer to have at least one other alternative.
That is why Swansea City's Fernando Llorente has been looked at for this window, and that is why Chelsea have started to give serious consideration to the summer.
Most at the club feel it is imperative that Costa stay now, but the expectation is that he will be allowed leave when the season ends. In what is likely to be a striker carousel that sees him replace the Manchester United-bound Antoine Griezmann at Atletico Madrid, Chelsea will then go for one of Everton's Romelu Lukaku or Real Madrid's Alvaro Morata. The club hierarchy have always wanted to bring Lukaku back, though Conte favours Morata. Meanwhile, Christian Benteke is viewed as a perfect back-up.
None of those forwards, however, have ever offered anything close to the strike-rate Costa has produced in the last few seasons. The next best is Lukaku, whose rate of 0.43 goals per game still pales next to the 0.63 of the Spanish international.
Costa has genuinely become a special player, one now very often winning games rather than spoiling them. The aftermath of this entire week, then, could be hugely influential in who ends up winning the title. If Costa gets straight back to form, it will be difficult not to say Chelsea. If he doesn't, things could get very interesting.
They could even get interesting today, as the league leaders face a Hull City who already look resurgent and so much more resilient under their bright new manager Marco Silva. He has the tactical intelligence to make it one of those very frustrating days for Chelsea.
What price a Costa winner, or even him being recalled from the bench to deliver one?
In the circumstances, it would be difficult to think of any other name.
Sunday Indo Sport