Antonio Conte has left Diego Costa sweating on his place for Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur and has denied John Terry what could have been a Wembley farewell.
Head coach Conte has looked at all forward options available to him ahead of Saturday’s clash against Spurs, which include dropping Costa and playing Eden Hazard in the centre or handing a rare chance to Michy Batshuayi.
Leaving top scorer Costa out of his starting line-up would be a bold move by Conte, who will replace Gary Cahill with Nathan Ake instead of Terry, and could push the 28-year-old even closer to the Stamford Bridge exit door.
The guessing games could, alternatively, be designed to spark Costa into life by making him uncertain of his place before eventually deciding to stick with him.
Whatever outcome Conte settles on, the Italian is clearly concerned by the form of Costa, who has only netted four times this year for Chelsea and has failed to score in his last six outings.
Attempting to put a positive spin on Costa’s struggles, Conte said: “I think he is keeping the goals for the finale of the season. It is the right moment to score.”
Conte, whose team face Southampton in the Premier League on Tuesday night, admitted he has tried different approaches in training by adding: “You must have a different approach with your team when you have these games so close. You have to find the right balance and to give the right work. In this case the work is tactical work and not physical work.”
Conte has started with Hazard in a central role with Pedro and Willian on either side of him on two occasions this season, both of which Chelsea won 3-0 against Bournemouth and Leicester City. Batshuayi last started in the FA Cup victory over Brentford, but is understood to be in contention for Saturday.
Costa missed the Leicester game following a row with Conte after Chelsea had rejected a lucrative January offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian, who have confirmed they are still working on a deal to sign him in the summer.
There are fears that Tianjin’s interest and his unhappiness in England has affected Costa’s form since the turn of the year, although he did play with a stomach bug in last week’s defeat to Manchester United.
Costa will have two years remaining on his contract at the end of this season, when the club will have to decide whether to offer him a new deal or sell him.
Leaving him out of the semi-final would only strengthen the growing feeling that Costa is likely to be sold with Chelsea lining up bids for Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
Conte confirmed that Cahill spent two nights in hospital this week with gastroenteritis and will not be part of his squad, but goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has recovered from an ankle injury to play.
Terry this week confirmed he will leave Chelsea at the end of the season, but Conte will replace Cahill with Ake in his back three.
Ake has only made two appearances for Chelsea since being recalled from his Bournemouth loan in January and Conte said: “Ake deserves to have this chance to play because he is showing me in all this period, always a great commitment.
“He worked very hard. His behaviour was great, was fantastic and he never said nothing. And don’t forget that Ake was playing every game with Bournemouth and he wanted to come and to stay with us to try to work together and to help us to fight for the title. I think he’s a good player.
“I think he’s ready to have this opportunity, to have this chance, he deserves this opportunity and I trust him. I have no problem to take this decision.”
Asked why Terry will not start, Conte added: “I think in this system the right position (for John) is in the middle of the three central defenders. In this case, I think for this position Ake has the right characteristic to be the substitute for Gary and the same Zouma for Azpilicueta.”