Chelsea’s Brazilian-born Spanish striker Diego Costa / AFP PHOTO / LINDSEY PARNABY /
Chelsea will bid to put the Diego Costa crisis behind them when the Premier League leaders host Hull, while title chasing Tottenham aim to maintain their hot streak at troubled Manchester City on Saturday.
Blues striker Costa reportedly clashed with Chelsea boss Antonio Conte last week over the club’s treatment of his back injury.
Amid reports that Costa was also the subject of a lucrative offer from Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian, Conte kept his players focused as they crushed Leicester 3-0 last weekend despite the absence of the Spain striker.
With Chelsea refusing to consider selling their leading scorer, Conte appears to have smoothed any troubled waters and Costa returned to full training this week.
Conte has refused to acknowledge there was even a dispute with Costa, but it will be instructive to see if he restores the notoriously volatile star to his starting line-up with so much at stake in the title race.
“Yes, I think the player wants to stay at Chelsea. This idea (to move) is far from his mind,” Conte said on Friday when asked if Costa was available to face Hull.
“Diego is a good player. He’s a good person. Now he’s only focused on Chelsea.
“I’m sure about his commitment, his will to fight with this team to try to win the title.”
In the unlikely event of a Chelsea slip, second-placed Tottenham could close the seven-point gap on their London rivals when they travel to Eastlands.
City’s 4-0 thrashing at Everton last Sunday was the heaviest league loss of Pep Guardiola’s glittering managerial career and left them languishing 10 points behind Chelsea after a second defeat in their last three league games.
That prompted Guardiola to write off City’s title hopes and led critics to question whether the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona chief can succeed in England.
Tottenham pose another threat to Guardiola’s equilibrium after reeling off a six-game winning run.
– ‘Intense’ –
But Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino, who handed Guardiola his first defeat as City boss in October, is certain his rival will eventually make his mark.
“Guardiola is one of the best managers. It is difficult to come to a new club and bring a new philosophy but he is doing very well. I am sure he will be a success,” Pochettino said.
With his squad short on energy and inspiration in recent weeks, Guardiola could freshen up his attack by giving a debut to teenage Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus, who officially completed his move from Palmeiras this week.
“I’ve watched the Premier League and I noticed it’s very hard, intense style of play,” Jesus said.
“I hope to adapt as quickly as possible in the first contact I have with the game.”
Liverpool striker Divock Origi has challenged his team-mates to keep the pressure on Chelsea when they host relegation-threatened Swansea.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are seven points behind Chelsea in third place after losing ground in the title race following a frustrating 1-1 draw at bitter rivals Manchester United last weekend.
But Origi is convinced Liverpool can still win a first title since 1990.
“I think it’s very tight above us at the moment, but you just have to look at it game by game,” Origi said.
“There are still a lot of big games, important games, so we have to stay together and finish well.”
Manchester United’s visit to Stoke offers the chance to exorcise some bad memories as Jose Mourinho’s side target a push towards the top four.
United’s lowest point of last season came in this fixture when, amid fevered speculation about Louis van Gaal’s future as manager, they performed woefully and slipped to a 2-0 Boxing Day defeat.
United have made slow progress since Mourinho replaced Van Gaal in the close-season, but a 12-match unbeaten run in the league has moved them within four points of the Champions League places.
“Stoke have got some very good players and we know it’s probably not the same going there now as it was seven or eight years ago,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said.
Fourth-placed Arsenal, eight points behind Chelsea, have no margin for error against Burnley.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Bournemouth v Watford, Crystal Palace v Everton, Liverpool v Swansea (1230 GMT), Manchester City v Tottenham (1730 GMT), Middlesbrough v West Ham, Stoke v Manchester United, West Brom v Sunderland
Arsenal v Burnley (1415 GMT), Chelsea v Hull (1630 GMT), Southampton v Leicester (1200 GMT)