Antonio Conte probably could have chosen a better way to inform Diego Costa his services were longer required at Chelsea than text message but there is no doubt that the Italian made the right call. Wednesday night’s win at Atletico Madrid vindicated Conte in the most dramatic of circumstances.
As Costa looked on from the stands, Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard led the line brilliantly all evening at the Metropolitano Stadium before Michy Batshuayi came off the bench to net a last-gasp winner that proved beyond all doubt that the Blues no longer needed the Brazil-born Spain international.
Just a day after completing his £58 million return to Atletico, Costa witnessed his new side get sunk by his old one. It must have made for painful viewing for the 28-year-old, who was visibly disgusted by the late goal – and perhaps also the realisation that Chelsea are better off without him.
Indeed, the players are happy and united behind their coach, as underlined by the way in which Morata ran to celebrate with Conte after cancelling out Antoine Griezmann’s opener from the penalty spot with another terrific headed goal.
Hazard, meanwhile, has had to be patient, being slowly eased back into the first team by Conte following his ankle break, but he responded with an inspired showing, finding an instant chemistry with his new strike partner.
Both of Chelsea’s goals stemmed from stunning passing moves but Morata’s finish from Hazard’s cross could be a sign of things to come in the Champions League, a competition which Chelsea are genuine contenders to win.
The equaliser involved almost every player clad in blue before Morata netted his fourth header and seventh goal of the season, while Batshuayi’s strike with the last kick of the game means he has now got five goals in his last three games for Chelsea.
Morata was booed, insulted and whistled by 68,000 fans, who targeted the Real Madrid academy graduate and former player, but although he missed a couple of big chances, he was central to everything Chelsea did in an attacking sense.
Indeed, Chelsea’s new £55 million striker looked completely unfazed about playing in front of the man he replaced.
Hazard also fed off Morata wonderfully well, very nearly opening the scoring with a long-range strike that smashed off the post. Ahead of the match, Conte said that the Champions League can serve as a springboard for the Belgian’s pursuit of individual honours and it is hard to see why not.
“We must be very happy because Eden Hazard’s performance was amazing and it was the first big game for him after his injury,” the Blues boss enthused afterwards.
“His answer was fantastic and positive. He had a great link with Alvaro Morata and I am happy for Michy Batshuayi.”
Meanwhile, Morata is thriving on the responsibility of being the number one striker. Pedro and Willian also remain important figures for Chelsea’s hopes this season but this new 3-5-2 shows another devastating way of lining up, especially when the two up top are Hazard and Morata.
They have made the knockout stage in 13 of their last 14 attempts and they should do so again. Indeed, Chelsea look like one Europe’s superpowers once again and Conte’s talk of them being outsiders is merely a way to ease the pressure and expectation.
The control and discipline that Conte’s side played with in Madrid was a show of might and an example of how Chelsea will play in the later stages of the competition.
In Morata and Hazard they have a partnership that can provide the moments of magic needed to win the Champions League, the trophy that repeatedly eluded Conte at Juventus.
Indeed, against Atletico, Conte’s Chelsea sent a message not only to Costa – but all of Europe.