Conte counting on Costa

Chelsea striker Diego Costa (right) being mobbed by team-mates after scoring the opening goal in their 2-0 Premier League win against Hull.
Chelsea striker Diego Costa (right) being mobbed by team-mates after scoring the opening goal in their 2-0 Premier League win against Hull.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Blues boss expects unsettled striker to be united with team in their EPL title challenge

LONDON • Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said his side had put on a united front after Diego Costa marked his return with a goal in the 2-0 victory over Hull City in the Premier League on Sunday.

Absent from last week's 3-0 win at Leicester City amid reports he had been unsettled by an offer from China, Costa celebrated his opener with a hand gesture suggestive of media chatter.

Conte claimed not to have seen the gesture, but with Chelsea having opened up an eight-point advantage at the top of the Premier League, he expressed confidence the matter had been put to bed.

"Honestly, I didn't see because I was celebrating on the bench," he said. "When we score goals, sometimes my celebrations are very dangerous for my staff. It's important Diego played a good game and I hope with this game to finish the speculation about him, about Chelsea, about me and him.

"We showed that we are a team with a great unity and this is of real value, because we stay top of the table."

Costa struck seven minutes into the nine minutes of first-half stoppage time added on after a head injury suffered by Hull's Ryan Mason, when he collided with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill, who scored the second goal in the 81st minute.

It was later revealed that Mason had undergone surgery on a fractured skull.

Costa's goal - on his 100th appearance for Chelsea since joining from Atletico Madrid in 2014 - was his 15th in the league so far this season, leaving him joint top scorer along with Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez.

The speculation about Costa is unlikely to vanish overnight, but Conte said he was more worried about preserving Chelsea's position in the table than about his striker's long-term future.

Asked if Costa signing a new contract would help to douse the rumours, Conte replied: "I don't know. This decision is something you have to take together with the club.

"But, I repeat: He's very happy to stay with us and to play with Chelsea. For us, now, it's very important to concentrate on the present and don't see too far."

Hull, who remain in the relegation zone, were missing Robert Snodgrass owing to what coach Marco Silva said was a "small" knee injury.

The Scotland international, Hull's outstanding performer this season, has been linked with a move to West Ham, but Silva said: "He's a good player, an important player for us, and I don't want important players to leave the club."

Chelsea host second-tier Brentford in the FA Cup this weekend, before returning to league action with a double header against Liverpool and Arsenal.

With Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all dropping points, Chelsea's grip on first place has tightened yet further, but Conte aired a warning.

"Me and my players, we have a good experience to understand that this league will be very tough until the end," said the Italian.

"To win this type of game and exploit the situation that the other teams dropped points is very important.

"To stay now in that position is fantastic for us because at the start of the season, not one person thought this (was possible)."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Conte counting on Costa'. Print Edition | Subscribe