LONDON — Antonio Conte played down speculation that Chelsea will sign Romelu Lukaku from Everton this summer by saying he considers Diego Costa “the best striker in the world.”
Lukaku leads the Premier League scoring charts with 24 goals in 33 appearances this season, but is refusing to sign a new contract at Everton after voicing his desire to play Champions League football, and has been widely linked with a return to Stamford Bridge at the end of the season.
Costa’s future is similarly uncertain. His form has nosedived since Chelsea rejected a lucrative bid from Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian to sign him in January and temporarily dropped him from the starting XI following a training ground row with a fitness coach and Conte.
The Spain international did, however, score twice in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge and speaking ahead of Chelsea’s clash with Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday, Conte was in no mood to indulge talk of replacing him with Lukaku.
“I don’t like to speak about players from the other teams, above all in this part of the season,” Conte said of the Lukaku reports. “It’s a crucial part of the season and I don’t like it. It’s a lack of respect for my players and for the other club.
“For sure he’s a good player. He has shown it in different seasons and scored a lot of goals. He’s a good guy, but I repeat: for us Diego is a very important player, and in this part of the season I think he will be decisive for us.”
Asked if Sunday’s match could be decided by Lukaku or Costa, Conte replied: “I hope Diego will decide it, because it will mean that we win the game.
“We are talking about two great strikers, but Diego for me is the best striker in the world. I hope he will be decisive in this game and from now until the end of the season.”
Chelsea know anything less than a win at Goodison Park could see Tottenham — who host North London rivals Arsenal at White Hart Lane — narrow their four-point lead at the top of the Premier League, and Conte believes now is the time for the determination of his players to shine through.
“In this part of the season it’s important to have players with good personality and strong character,” he added. “We must be ready to face different situations before the game, during the game and after the game.
“I work every day to bring them to be warriors. It’s great to have talent, but I like above all if you show you are a great warrior during the game.”