Belotti shines but Lukaku, Sanchez more appealing if Costa exits Chelsea
Last summer there was simply no way Chelsea would have regarded Andrea Belotti as a serious candidate to replace Diego Costa, even with incoming head coach Antonio Conte facing a significant rebuilding job and his volatile top scorer pushing for a return to Atletico Madrid.
At that stage, Belotti had only just begun to emerge as a goal scorer of note for Torino, netting 11 times in 22 Serie A appearances between January and May 2016 and operating largely as a second striker alongside Borussia Dortmund disappointment Ciro Immobile.
This season has been a different story. Deployed as a roving, bustling No. 9 in a 4-3-3 system following the sale of Immobile to Lazio, Belotti has fired 24 goals in just 28 Serie A matches to lead the division's scoring charts alongside Roma star Edin Dzeko. In doing so, he has catapulted himself toward the top of the list of coveted European strikers.
There has been a startling amount of variation to the goals, even if Belotti is almost exclusively a penalty area finisher: nine with his right foot, five with his left and 10 headers, despite him standing at just 5-foot-11. His stocky, powerful build is reminiscent of Luis Suarez and his skill set, unusually well-rounded for a 23-year-old, suggests all the fundamentals required to thrive in the Premier League.
"My father told me: 'If you don't leave the pitch absolutely exhausted, it means you haven't given it your all,'" Belotti told La Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this season.
"I like to work hard."
He has fought for recognition at every stage of his career, beginning as an unremarkable young midfielder turned down by Atalanta and slow to impress at Albinoleffe, before struggling to score at Palermo.
It isn't hard to imagine Belotti's drive and attitude making him a very attractive option for Conte, who demands selflessness and total commitment from all his players.
His spectacular success as the focal point of a three-man attack is also a significant development, given that Conte is unlikely to ditch the 3-4-3 system that has led Chelsea to the brink of the Premier League title. If Costa does leave Stamford Bridge this summer, his replacement will have to tick many of the same boxes as well as possessing elite scoring pedigree.
Belotti signed a new contract with Torino in December that runs until June 2021. It contains an eye-watering €100 million (£86m) buyout clause and following reports of a £56m bid from Arsenal, owner Urbano Cairo clarified that he will not consider any offers below the figure stipulated in his star striker's new deal.
Chelsea still have the £60m recouped for Oscar burning a hole in the pocket, while any fee gained from the potential sale of Costa is also likely to be significant. In addition, the combination of increased TV revenue and bumper new commercial deals means they should be capable of out-bidding anyone in this summer's transfer market.
Whether it would be smart to go that far for Belotti, however, is another matter. He looks to have all the makings of a superstar, but we are heading into a window where attackers with Premier League experience and much more than one season of great production behind them -- Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, to name just two -- are likely to be available at comparable or lower prices.
Chelsea's decision not to insist on a buy-back clause in the £28m sale of Lukaku to Everton in July 2014 makes this summer's pursuit less straightforward, but the Belgian has given his former club significant encouragement with his public comments in recent months, and all the signs are that he is looking to leave Goodison Park.
Sanchez, meanwhile, is seemingly setting the stage for his departure from Arsenal, who would rather sell him to just about anyone ahead of Chelsea. But the Chilean's contract situation gives him the most leverage and if he makes it clear he wants to stay in London over other options, the Gunners will be in a very difficult spot.
Lukaku and Sanchez will be the first ports of call. Belotti's buyout clause will still be there later in the summer or perhaps even in 2018, when Chelsea will be able to make a more confident assessment of just how good he can be. One thing is for certain: after what he has achieved this season, the Premier League leaders will not be the only ones watching with interest.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.