London (AFP) – Premier League leaders Chelsea will hope to draw a line beneath the controversy that has embroiled striker Diego Costa when they welcome Hull City to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Costa missed last weekend’s 3-0 win at champions Leicester City after reportedly rowing with fitness coach Julio Tous amid reports of an eye-watering offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian.
Officially, he was nursing a back complaint, but while Antonio Conte has declared him fit, the Chelsea manager is wary about breaking up his front three of Eden Hazard, Pedro Rodriguez and Willian.
“To make a decision is not easy because I have four or five players who are very strong in that position,” said Conte, whose side have a seven-point lead at the summit.
“They are in good form and they give me different options. I’m pleased about this because when you have many players to choose from, it’s good.
“I’ve been sleeping less so I make the best decision, but that’s my task: to pick the best players game by game.
“I have to pick three players and if someone misses out it’s not a punishment, only because at that moment I like to make choices based on the game and the opponent. That’s very important to me.”
Costa is Chelsea’s top scorer with 14 league goals, but he was not missed at the King Power Stadium as wing-back Marcos Alonso’s brace and a Pedro header carried the leaders to a straightforward victory.
It allowed Chelsea to get back to winning ways after their 13-game winning streak was brought to an end by a 2-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur.
But with that loss still fresh in the memory, and back-to-back fixtures against Liverpool and Arsenal to follow Sunday’s game, Conte knows the finishing line remains a long way off.
“Our challenge is to keep the right concentration and to think this type of game is very important for the table if you take three points,” said the former Juventus and Italy head coach.
“We have to focus on our target because if you think it will be easy you make a big mistake and you can pay for that at the end of the season.
“Hull City are a good team. They won their last game against Bournemouth. They changed their coach and usually when you do that there is a great reaction from the players.”
– Snodgrass doubt –
Hull have indeed enjoyed an upturn in fortunes since Marco Silva was appointed as the successor to Mike Phelan on January 5.
They beat Swansea City 2-0 in the FA Cup third round and won 3-1 against Bournemouth last weekend, leaving them in the relegation zone on goal difference alone.
Their only misstep was a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final.
Even then it took an 87th-minute Marouane Fellaini header for United to feel comfortable.
“Nothing has been done differently in our preparations this week because we are playing Chelsea,” Silva said.
“We have done the normal things that we have done for the previous games against Swansea, Manchester United and Bournemouth.
“The only difference this week is that we have had more time to prepare ahead of the game.
“That is important for me and my players. They have had more time to work with my ideas and hopefully we will see the benefits on Sunday.”
Silva could hand a debut to Norwegian right-back Omar Elabdellaoui, who joined on loan from the manager’s former club Olympiakos on Friday.
But he must make a change in midfield after Jake Livermore joined West Bromwich Albion for a reported fee of £10 million ($12.3 million, 11.5 million euros).
Top scorer Robert Snodgrass is a doubt for Hull due to a muscle strain, but David Meyler could be available following a knock.
Captain John Terry returns from suspension for Chelsea, but is likely to be named on the bench.