Eden Hazard and Pedro provide answers for Chelsea in Diego Costa’s absence
Back at the stadium that hosted the acrid final scene of the second José Mourinho era, the stage was seemingly set for Chelsea to give their title rivals further encouragement that they can be caught. The defeat at Tottenham Hotspur had stalled their momentum, while the deliciously unexpected twist in the explosive Diego Costa story heightened the intrigue before kick-off at Leicester City. A trip to the champions felt like a fine test of their character.
Yet even though Chelsea were without their main striker, who was dropped after a row over a huge offer made to him from a club in the Chinese Super League, there was little dramatic tension at the King Power Stadium. The result never looked in doubt after Marcos Alonso’s early goal, with the left wing‑back’s double offering an impressive display of Chelsea’s adaptability and strength in depth. A header from the excellent Pedro added gloss to the scoreline.
Claudio Ranieri attempted to counter Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system by setting up Leicester in a 3-5-2 formation but whereas the struggling hosts were muddled, Chelsea oozed authority. They look like a team in control of their destiny. “Chelsea is not only one man,” Ranieri said. “They have good champions and can change all the players and find the solution.”
The one man in question was Costa, who was missing from the travelling party after clashing with a member of Chelsea’s coaching staff over a back injury that prevented him from training properly last week. Conte stuck to the line that Costa, who has reportedly been offered £30m a year by Tianjin Quanjian, was unfit and the manager hopes the striker will return to face Hull City on Sunday. There have been denials from Costa’s camp that the Premier League’s joint-top scorer with 14 goals is interested in a move to China.
Conte has already seen one of his players leave for south-east Asia – Oscar recently completed a £60m move to Shanghai SIPG – and it was interesting to hear the manager insist that competitive instincts should trump every player’s desire for a more lucrative contract. Reading between the lines, his comments felt like a pointed message towards Costa and anyone else tempted by the riches on offer in China.
“Oscar played with us, he had a good offer from China and he went,” Conte said. “But I don’t see a threat for my players because I think we are a big club and it is a great honour to play for Chelsea. I don’t see a threat for my players. The money is not all. When you play for a good team like Chelsea, you must be pleased.
“This league is really competitive and every player wants to come and play in this league. This league is the first in the world because of a lot of positive things. For this reason, I don’t think these offers are a threat for our league.”
The theory was that Chelsea would toil without Costa, especially as Michy Batshuayi is yet to convince Conte he is capable of deputising for the 28-year-old. “For Michy, it is important to continue to work and to show me that he deserves to play,” Conte said. “I have zero problem playing a young player.”
As Ranieri said, Chelsea have solutions. Eden Hazard excelled in a central role, just as he did when Costa was suspended for the 3-0 win over Bournemouth on Boxing Day. He set up Alonso’s opener with a magnificent assist. Willian and Pedro were menacing either side of the Belgian, N’Golo Kanté ruled midfield on his return to his former club and Chelsea’s play was often a delight to watch.
“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego,” the Chelsea goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, said. “Diego is important for us but if he’s not there for one game we know we can handle it.
“It’s a different way of playing against Robert Huth and Wes Morgan because they are tall and there is no point in giving long balls to Eden or Pedro but we did well and the early goal helped us to control the game.”
There will be tougher tests than Leicester for Chelsea, such as the trip to Liverpool on 31 January, and their best team still include Costa. Even without him, however, they have the look of killers.
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