Sure, it was a blip. Defeat at Tottenham. Two decent – but preventable – goals from Dele Alli. A performance from the visitors where they still managed to fashion chances – without finding a way out of third gear. Spurs didn’t play Chelsea off the pitch. Far from it. They hit them on the break – at home. It’s not time for panic stations at Stamford Bridge.
But it was the first time, in a long while, where the limitations of Conte’s squad must have struck home. The Italian was hammered in the aftermath for waiting so late to throw on Willian and Cesc Fabregas. But neither player guarantees you a goal. Neither of them are going to get on the end of a cross. It was evident to all. Without Diego Costa on his game, Chelsea will always struggle.
He was celebrated going into last Wednesday night’s showdown. A “warrior”. A “fighter”. And Conte would want Costa to be just that, with no teammate anywhere near to being a threat to his position. As things stand, Conte is counting on Costa’s drive and self-motivation to fire them to the title. There’s little else he can do.
When it isn’t falling for his centre-forward. Or, just whisper it for now, when he’s not fit enough to take the field. Where does Conte turn? Michy Batshuayi? He already showed against Bournemouth how little he thinks of the Belgian. Even on Wednesday, in desperate need of a goal, he couldn’t trust throwing on Batshuayi until five minutes from the end. That was over a half hour after Alli’s second header had found the back of the net.
Can Costa stay on the park for the remainder of this campaign? Even Leicester City last season, with Jamie Vardy battling through groin surgery and a dodgy wrist, could still count on Leo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki to step in when needed. But Chelsea…?
When it comes to Costa and his striker options, Conte clearly knows everything is on a knife-edge. That’s why he’s blocked Batshuayi from returning to France at Lille. The Belgian, well more accurately his minders, were eager for the deal to be done this week. But Conte, despite the obvious lack of confidence he has in the young striker, refused to sanction the move. He may not feel Batshuayi is up to it. But he’s the best Chelsea have at the moment in terms of Costa cover.
Could this be what Conte was hinting at this week? He might as well have name-checked Costa. The message couldn’t be more clear.
“It’s important to talk with my club, there are some positions that if we are able to find the right solution it’s important to take,” he said. “This championship is long and it’s important. I know the difficulty of the January market and the find the right solution and the right player isn’t easy.”
In terms of his attack, Conte obviously feels there’s unfinished business. We know, courtesy of the player himself, that Chelsea bid for Alvaro Morata, the Real Madrid striker, after the arrival of Batshuayi. And readers of this column will be well aware of that call Conte made to Carlos Tevez while he was dashing around the streets of Buenos Aries.
The manager knows finding an alternative to Costa is important. Not just as cover, but also to give him some flexibility in his formation. While in England, he’s employed Costa as a lone centre-forward, with Juventus, Conte was happy to pair Tevez alongside Morata – and Fernando Llorente. We will talk more about former Juventus striker Fernando Llorente in the very near future.
The Swansea City centre-forward has been mentioned as a January target for Conte. Someone reliable. Whom the manager could count on in the absence of Costa. And in terms of Tevez, Chicharito is another being linked with Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, in Germany they’re saying a contract offer has already been made to the Bayer Leverkusen striker. Would Wednesday have still finished as a 2-0 reverse if Conte had Javier Hernandez available off the bench?
Another fullback. A third centre-half. A replacement for Oscar… and for Mikel John Obi. There’s been boundless speculation about how Conte will spend his budget this month. But the most pressing need is obvious. Made clear at an electric White Hart Lane on Wednesday.
With this current squad, unless he finds cover, to finish champions Conte needs Diego Costa on the pitch for their remaining 18 games.