LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has confirmed he was paying close attention to Everton striker Romelu Lukaku this week but with a view to stopping him scoring against the Blues on Sunday rather than signing him in the summer.
Premier League leaders Chelsea have been repeatedly linked with the Belgian they sold to Everton for 28 million pounds ($36.22 million) as a possible replacement for Diego Costa, who has admirers in China.
Lukaku is the league’s top scorer, with 24 goals to Costa’s 19, and will provide Everton’s main threat as Chelsea seek to extend their four-point lead over second-placed Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park.
“I think he is a really good player and is scoring a lot of goals in this season, not only this season, we must pay great attention,” Conte told reporters on Friday.
“But it is the same, to find the right solution to stop them. We must find the right solution to stop Lukaku and all the other players.”
Asked which striker he would prefer in his team, Conte said: “For me, my players are the best in the world. I don’t change them with others.”
A win for Chelsea would confirm qualification for next season’s Champions League in a game being billed as their last serious hurdle to winning the title, with only Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Watford and Sunderland to overcome.
But Conte was keen not to look beyond Sunday, highlighting the need for his team to keep a clean sheet after conceding in their past 11 games, including Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Southampton.
“It’s important to improve, to work on the situations we’re conceding the goals. We are working on it. Everton are a really good team, a strong team, with great players in their squad and a physical team,” said Conte.
“When we started this season, our first target was to play in the Champions League next season. It’s an important target for the club, for the fans, for the players. But, for sure, now we stay in a position to try also to win the league.”
Conte got an early sight of silverware this week when he sat beside Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to watch the club’s under-18 team beat Manchester City 6-2 on aggregate, going into the dressing room afterwards to congratulate the youngsters.
“The work in the academy is very important to Chelsea,” he said. “In this team I saw four, five players with good prospects.”
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Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ken Ferris