Chelsea manager Antonio Conte described Diego Costa as an example to his teammates after the English Premier League leaders went 13 points clear with a 2-1 win at Stoke City.
The infamously feisty Costa, dropped in January after reports of a row with Conte, was left walking a disciplinary tightrope after being booked for simulation in the 16th minute of Saturday’s game at the Bet365 Stadium.
The controversial Spain striker was involved in numerous clashes with Stoke players, particularly centerbacks Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi, but managed to remain on the pitch and Conte praised the way that Costa refused to be baited.
“It’s not easy when you receive a yellow card after a few minutes,” said Conte, whose side prevailed courtesy of an 87th-minute winner by centerback Gary Cahill.
“The rule is it’s normal to make a player angry, and to get him to react and to commit another foul,” he said. “I think Diego is showing not only in this game that you have to be very disciplined. Diego is showing himself to be a great player in this way.”
“He showed me great commitment, and showed he was playing for the team and not for himself. I want that from my players and that behavior from my players,” he said. “In the past, sometimes he has been given two yellow cards. This season I’ve been pleased with him because of his behavior.”
Cahill fired home the winner as Chelsea left it late after Jonathan Walters’ penalty seven minutes before the break canceled out Willian’s 13th-minute free-kick.
Cahill went from villain to hero, having pushed Walters to concede the spot-kick.
Chelsea looked the more likely winners in the second half as Marcos Alonso and Costa hit the woodwork, before Stoke goalkeeper Lee Grant denied Pedro.
Chelsea’s fifth straight win in all competitions extended their unbeaten run to 12 matches and ended Stoke’s eight-game unbeaten home league record.
Conte, who revealed playmaker Eden Hazard missed the game after hurting his calf in training on Friday last week, believes Chelsea need seven wins from their final 10 games to be mathematically sure of the title.
“I think this was an important win because it was against a strong team in a great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s not easy at this point of the season to play a team who also have good quality and good tactical organization, but I think we showed a good will to win from the start to the end. The players showed me a will to win, but they also showed they were prepared to fight to win this game.”
Stoke manager Mark Hughes denied his players had targeted Costa in a bid to get him sent off.
“We didn’t do that,” Hughes said. “It was more likely he targeted our players. We wanted a competitive game and I really enjoyed it. No quarter given or asked.”
However, Hughes believes Costa’s reactions to challenges count against him.
“He’s an outstanding striker, but on occasions he got elements in his play he doesn’t need to have,” said the Welshman, once a bruising centerforward himself. “You can look after yourself, but you don’t need the rest of it and it takes away from his performance as a player. I just think it detracts from what a good player he is.”
Asked if Costa had gone down too easily, Hughes said: “On numerous occasions, and stayed down. You don’t need that.”
Hughes also thought match-winner Cahill was lucky to be on the pitch after pushing Walters for the penalty.