Diego Costa was clearly upset by Antonio Conte’s reportedly blunt text message. The message told the Spanish forward he was surplus to requirements at the Premier League champions. Their public conflict earlier in the season had supposedly been resolved, but Conte has ruthlessly decided his top goal scorer from his superb first season in England is replaceable.
Costa’s revelation leaves Chelsea in a compromised position. With the China move off the table and Costa seemingly only interested in a return to Atletico Madrid, their hands are tied and money is being lost. Should Atleti be the destination for the Spaniard, he must remain at Stamford Bridge until January at the very least. How Chelsea then negotiate a price will be a grave challenge.
When a player so clearly wants to leave and the club have tried to force him out Chelsea’s stance at the boardroom discussions is a vulnerable one.
Though we are yet to be treated to the over-the- top unveiling, Romelu Lukaku is expected to be the reason for Costa being edged towards the door. Lukaku refused to sign a new Everton contract last season and – despite leaving Chelsea in uncomfortable circumstances – is a boyhood Blue. The 24-year- old has been shattering goal scoring records since breaking through at Anderlecht and was just pipped to the Premier League golden boot this season.
Everything about Lukaku looks like superstar material. A knack for highlight reel individual performances, the unstoppable pace and power, the statistics that enable comparisons to some of the game’s best: he has it all. His ascension to the level of Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez should be inevitable.
It is, unfortunately, not. Improvement in his game since breaking out in a goal-heavy loan at West Bromwich Albion in 2012/13 has not been as dramatic as we may have expected. Teams – because of his undeniable talent – have set up to understandably play to his strengths which has meant the Belgian man mountain has not needed to adapt like he will need to if he is to succeed Costa successfully.
The sale of Lukaku was a point of contention at Stamford Bridge. Now the seemingly inevitable return of the once touted Didier Drogba replacement comes at a price. That weight will be as great a burden as the previous demand to be Drogba reincarnate did all those years ago.
The now clichéd critique of Lukaku is his first touch and link-up play. Costa’s own first touch has been far from faultless, but the real difference between the two is mentality. Costa plays like an unleashed pitbull, he has scrapped and torn defences apart with his persevering runs. Lukaku is a lethal finisher and force of nature, but his movement seldom has any use other than for him to receive ball.
As an option as Chelsea return to the Champions League and dream of retaining their Premier League crown, Lukaku would be superb. If this was a simple case of recalling the Belgian from a loan to form a fearsome group of striking options it would be something special. As a direct replacement for a striker who has spearheaded two title wins, however, Lukaku is a risk.
Leave If You Want
Costa has reportedly been flirting with leaving Stamford Bridge from almost the day he arrived. Conte wants his players to have a level of commitment beyond the norm to the cause of victory. It was a relationship between two fiery individuals that was destined to end in tears, but the clear rejection from Conte rather than waiting for Costa to push his way out the door gives a glimpse of authoritarianism that could cost Chelsea in their title defence.
Merciless, yes, but the latest turn in the Costa saga leaves Chelsea on the back foot when it comes to the sale and without improvement in the final third. Chelsea’s squad was not the best in England this season, far from it in fact. The Blues need a near-perfect summer to have any hope of another successful campaign, and the first news from Stamford Bridge is underwhelming.
Even if Lukaku can fill the void left by one of the sport’s perfect pantomime villains, Chelsea will have swallowed a portion of their summer budget that is sorely needed elsewhere. The decision to let Costa leave is justifiable, but to push him away in such a fashion is not. This may get ugly, which will only undermine their summer business further. For a fresh bout of controversy, Chelsea’s squad will arguably be weaker than it was on the final day of the season.
Such is their poor history of transfers after winning the title, Chelsea could be left behind in the Premier League arms race.