Diego Costa has been Conte’s sharpened blade at Chelsea

Diego Costa has been Conte’s sharpened blade at Chelsea

Diego Costa was off the leash – dancing in his pants, drowning his manager in champagne, swinging from scaffolding, threatening the press with a fire extinguisher.

The Chelsea striker burst into Antonio Conte’s post-match media briefing at The Hawthorns and insisted the Italian get up and leave.

It was gone 11pm, after all, and Costa wanted to go home. The Blues had won the Premier League title and it was time to celebrate, not churn out pleasantries to 50 assorted journalists.

Few players would get away with it. Then again, there aren’t many players like Costa.

The Spain international has been his side’s sharpened blade in 2016-17, shaking off an naturally volatile temperament, rash indiscipline and a head-turning offer from China to lead Chelsea to top spot.

N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard might have been the pivots for this title triumph but Costa was the spike – a gnarling, brutish spike with a deft touch and ferocious finish.

No defender in the league wants to come up against him. No opposing manager quite knows how to contain him. Rile him, wind him up until he goes pop, sure, but tactically the frontman is almost impossible to deal with.

Costa’s goals directly secured 15 Premier League points for the Blues, and he netted or set up more than a third of their league total for the campaign.

His return of 20 goals matches his contribution to Chelsea’s last title win two years ago – he still has a game to play, against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge – and he’s also weighed in with six assists, matching his previous season best.

While last term, as the west London club struggled amongst themselves in a lazy meander to 10th place, Costa was wayward and flaky, this season he has been razor sharp.

Whatever Conte has done to focus his mind should be repackaged and flogged as ADHD medicine.

Even when it seemed the striker had thrown a strop in mid-season, with clubs from the Far East lingering, the Chelsea manager found away of coaxing him back around.

And so he has been rewarded.

Costa has never featured in as many minutes – more than 90 per cent – of a league season for the Blues.

He has hit the highest of heights and, as a result, Chelsea have too.

The question now is ‘can Conte hang onto his star man?’

Costa is not the only Stamford Bridge asset in fierce demand – Hazard is coveted by Real Madrid, as is Thibaut Courtois, but right now he seems the most likely to depart. A deal with Tianjin Quanjian is reportedly done, worth in excess of £25m a season to the Brazil-born hitman.

Though any money received for Costa could fund a move for Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and a host of other household names, losing the brute would be a major disappointment for Conte, the club and its fans.

For all his flaws – and there are many – Chelsea will struggle to find anyone to fit into Costa’s void.

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