Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

After missing out on Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, the second-best goalscorer in the Premier League last season, it seemed that Chelsea’s next-best option would be to stick with the striker they already have—Diego Costa, who scored 22 goals in 42 games in 2016-17. Other strikers, including Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata and Torino’s Andrea Belotti, are reportedly on the Blues’ radar but remain far from actually making the move to London. If the season had to start today, Costa would be Chelsea’s best option.

But despite not having a ready replacement, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte seems especially eager to push Costa out the door. After Costa was dogged by rumors all year that he would soon be moving to China, Conte directly told him at the beginning of the offseason that he wasn’t wanted at the club. Now, Conte’s excusing Costa from preseason training. It’s possible that Costa’s absence is mostly about avoiding distractions, but Conte’s overzealous actions clearly send a message to other clubs: We don’t have a proven striker, and we need one desperately.

Advertisement

It’s not hard to see why Conte isn’t keen on keeping Costa. Though beloved by Chelsea supporters, he is one of the most notorious villains in the Premier League, as famous for starting scraps as he is for scoring goals. What makes him so good at getting under opponents’ skins is also what makes him hard to manage. It doesn’t help that Conte can be a bit of a hothead, too, and Costa’s abrasive personality could be too tough for him to bear.

Chelsea don’t have a lot of options, though. Old hopes for a massive Chinese transfer have mostly been dashed, as new regulations (including a 100 percent tax on overseas transfers) have quickly stopped what was, for a short time, a lucrative way to unload players. If Alex Teixeria commanded 50 million Euros, surely selling Costa would have given Chelsea enough money to buy almost any striker in the world to replace him.

Costa’s most likely destination would be his old home, Atlético Madrid. The main problem here is that Atlético are currently serving a transfer ban until January, because they broke rules regarding the signing of under-18 players. Any agreement this summer on Atlético’s part to sign Costa would probably have to involve some finagling that stashes Costa in Turkey for half a season, delaying Chelsea’s payment.

Advertisement

Even if this convoluted plan comes to fruition, Chelsea still would need a new starting striker who could replace the 22 goals Costa scored last season. Michy Batshuayi is currently the next man up, but despite showing flashes of potential, the 23-year-old is not yet playing at the level needed to start for a Premier League defending champion.

With their chase for Romelu Lukaku ending in failure, Real Madrid’s young Álvaro Morata is Chelsea’s most-desired option. Morata, only 24, is already as productive as Costa at the highest level of the sport. He will not come cheap, with a rumored price tag of around 70 million pounds, or more than twice as much as Atlético want to pay for Costa.

And, as the relationship between Costa and Conte worsens, Morata’s price tag will only get higher. That’s what makes Conte’s recent behavior so bizarre. In telegraphing how badly he wants Costa to leave, Conte is practically pulling a Phil Jackson, asking teams to take Costa on the cheap and jack up the price for a new striker.

Advertisement

As Conte attempts to make sure that Costa will have no part in the next Chelsea season, he’s only limiting his options, backing himself into a corner until Chelsea either has to take a loss or start a disgruntled striker. With rivals Arsenal and Manchester United having already made upgrades at the position early this offseason, Chelsea can’t afford to slip up.