Costa's special bond with Conte is paying dividends for Chelsea
Chelsea 4 Stoke City 2
When Antonio Conte embraced Diego Costa at the final whistle of Saturday's 4-2 win over Stoke, the duo sharing a joke and a laugh together, he might have wondered how differently this season could have gone.
When Conte arrived in July, Costa wanted to go back to Atletico Madrid and admitted on Saturday he was "about to leave" before the move fell through.
Six months on, Costa has 14 Premier League goals and is likely to finish the season with the Golden Boot, as well as his second Premier League title. He is certainly going to out-do the 20 he scored on his way to the 2014-15 title. With all due respect to Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero, Costa is the best striker in the country right now.
The fact that Chelsea did not sell Costa and buy back Romelu Lukaku, as they had initially hoped to, now looks either far-sighted or fortunate. Costa revealed on Saturday just how close he had come to ending his time here, because of the family pull of returning to Madrid.
"I had the possibility to go to Atletico because of a few things, family, the life I have there," he said. "I wanted to change for family reasons. Not because of Chelsea, because there is a lot of love with the supporters, so I'm very happy. I was about to leave. But it wasn't to be. I continue to be happy here, I'm very content."
Costa - who added Chelsea's fourth after goals from Gary Cahill and Willian (2), with Stoke's coming from Bruno Martins Indi and Peter Crouch - said that the trust he feels from Conte has been a big part of his revival as a player. "It was important, too, that the manager counted on me," Costa said.
It is true that Conte has worked very hard on Costa, getting him fitter and more focused, but the biggest improvement has come from within Costa himself.
After picking up four yellow cards at the start of the season, the fact that Costa survived so long before receiving a fifth speaks volumes to his improved disciplinary record, and his ability to resist provocation.
"I thought about it and knew I had to improve that aspect because, here in the Premier League, the reality is there's no mercy," Costa said.
Costa spoke of the intense personal loyalty that the players already feel towards Conte, a bond that is clear every time he runs onto the pitch to do his post-match victory hugs.
"The truth is that the manager is good with the players, always making jokes with us," Costa said. "That is good for us, to have a manager who is not just a boss but like a person we can talk with, someone whose support we can count on in difficult moments. He is calm with the players and you can see the people love him more all the time."
Conte loves Costa too. He spoke afterwards of how his bubbly personality helps to lift the whole team.
"Diego is a good guy and for him it is important to joke," Conte said. "But when it is the moment to work, he works."
CHELSEA: Courtois, Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Moses (Ivanovic, 82 mins), Kante, Fabregas (Matic, 73 mins), Alonso 6, Willian (Chalobah, 84 mins), Hazard, Costa. Unused subs: Begovic, Zouma, Loftus-Cheek, Batshuayi.
STOKE: Grant, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Diouf, Allen, Adam, Pieters, Afellay (Bojan, 61 mins), Crouch, Shaqiri (Imbula, 61 mins). Unused subs: Bardsley, Whelan, Bony, Given, Krkic, Sobhi.
Referee: Robert Madley