LONDON • Diego Costa's renaissance continues to match that of a Chelsea team for whom the Spaniard has now scored 10 goals this season, compelling Antonio Conte to describe his talisman as "one of the best strikers in the world".
After the 1-0 victory away to Middlesbrough, Conte rebuffed suggestions that Chelsea are now title favourites after they moved to the top of the Premier League, pointing to the mental scars that still exist after early-season defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal.
Following those losses, the Italian has guided his team to six consecutive victories and almost 10 hours without conceding a goal.
The 47-year-old, however, was more willing to discuss the contribution of match winner Costa, who tops the Premier League's scoring charts after 12 games with his goal.
"Diego is always important, not only for today," Conte said of a player who had scored only twice at this point last season, when the then-champions found themselves three points above the relegation zone.
LONGEST EPL WINNING STREAK WITHOUT CONCEDING
• MANCHESTER UNITED (December 2008-February 2009)
• CHELSEA (December 2004-February 2005)
• CHELSEA (January-April 2007)
• LIVERPOOL (October-December 2005)
• CHELSEA (October 2016-present)
"He is our point of reference in attacking. He is impressive in the way he is finding his goals, and it is important to continue this way because we need his goals.
"In the past, people have been asking me about his behaviour and his reactions, but now as a striker, I think he is one of the best in the world.
"He has to continue this way, and he is showing his patience in the right way and is focused on helping the team, with and without the ball."
Conte refused to entertain talk of the Premier League title returning to Stamford Bridge in May, despite a display of ruthless efficiency from his side that again marks them out as serious contenders as the season nears its halfway stage.
"I think that now it is difficult to reply to this," he said.
"Only a month and a half ago, you saw Chelsea conceded two defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal. We were not favourites nor a team who could fight for the title until the end. Now, it is difficult to change that opinion completely.
"We are working well, but if you ask what is our target, I want to wait until the end of the first part of the championship.
"It's hard to say if we're the best side in the country, but I'm pleased with the players because they know our fans demand that we must fight until the end."
Aitor Karanka's Middlesbrough are just one point clear of the relegation zone after the defeat.
"Playing against a team like Chelsea, we knew it would be tough," said the Spanish manager.
"One mistake punished us, but we have shown we can compete against the best teams in the league. You can't be pleased to lose one game, but I am pleased with the attitude of the players."
Chelsea face Tottenham next, then Manchester City, with Conte insisting that his side are ready for the mental and physical demands of a Premier League fixture calendar that goes into overdrive at this time of the year.
He added: "We're ready to play many games in a few days. We've worked not only on the tactical aspect but also the physical aspect.
"Our trust in what we're doing and how we are working is increasing, and now it's important to focus on the next game - a massive one against Tottenham."
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE