As Diego Costa prepares to serve his first suspension of the season, when Chelsea play Bournemouth at 3pm today, the debate over whether Antonio Conte has managed to tame the Premier League’s most explosive talent could still be the key to how the title race pans out.
Ever since the Spanish international arrived at Stamford Bridge the ‘Costa Conundrum’ has dogged successive coaches. How do you bottle the passion, aggression, and desire to win of the highly talented striker without it spilling over into the antics of what has become football’s favourite pantomime villain?
So far, Conte seems to have got the balance just right because although Costa has racked up five bookings, resulting in a one-match ban, he has still been the driving force behind Chelsea’s rise to the top of the table as they head into the Christmas programme.
Not only has he scored 13 league goals (more than he managed in the entire of last season) but only two teams so far (Manchester United at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal at the Emirates) have managed to prevent him either scoring or assisting in the Premier League since August.
It’s little wonder that Conte, whose man-management style seems more suited to Costa’s personality than that of Jose Mourinho perhaps, is happy with the striker’s contribution..
“Diego is playing very well, and is enjoying playing this football. Now he’s showing his passion in the right way,” he said. “You’re asking me about why it happened as it did in the past, but I don’t know. I can only talk about his commitment, his workrate during the games, and it’s fantastic. I want this from my players. I try to get all my players to think like this.
“I don’t like provocation, I don’t like bad attitudes. I’m trying to transfer this to my players. But I’m very lucky because I have players with great behaviour. It’s good news for Chelsea and for the fans the way Diego is playing. He is playing with great passion.
“It’s fantastic that he is scoring goals but it’s important for him not only to score but to work for the team — and he is doing that. For me at the moment this is the most important thing.”
Such a saintly portrayal of Costa would have been almost unthinkable a year ago when his snarling and aggressive on-field antics dominated the headlines, along with a training ground altercation with teammate Oscar.
The ‘crime sheet’ is a long one. A three-match ban for violent conduct during a League Cup tie with Liverpool (which included a stamp on Emre Can) springs to mind as well as a fiery encounter against Arsenal at the Bridge in which Costa lashed out at Laurent Koscielny and was banned retrospectively.
No such problems this season, however, and the positive news for Chelsea fans is that the new Costa — despite those bookings — feels he can improve even further by channelling his aggression more positively. “I want to be on the pitch and I want to be cool,” he said. “I would say I am in great form, but not the best. There is more to come.”
What’s remarkable, of course, is Costa came agonisingly close to leaving Stamford Bridge last summer. All those negative headlines and the intensity of the media attention eventually became difficult to handle as the striker did his best to engineer a move back to Atletico Madrid, admitting he felt unsettled in London.
Chelsea, and Conte in particular, blocked the move, and instead identified a lack of fitness as one of the reasons the striker underperformed last season, particularly in the early part of the campaign when everything went wrong for Mourinho.
A stricter diet and more intense pre-season training sessions appear to have delivered a leaner, fitter, and more mobile Costa and also helped him feel more comfortable off the pitch.
The first hint of Costa’s revival came in an enlightening interview in Chelsea’s club magazine in August, looking back on the disaster which was 2015-16 and ahead to the new campaign.
“Everyone has to be their own critic,” Costa said when analysing a disappointing year. “For me it didn’t go well, we didn’t honour this great club as we should.
“So we knew that this season, we had to start strong. We had to have this team spirit, this motivation to start well, not just from the first game but from the beginning of pre-season right through to the last game of the season, in order to honour the club.
“The fans here have helped me a lot. I hear them and I’m very thankful. Sometimes I even tell my relatives and my friends that I get a lot of love from the fans and I’m not sure if it’s deserved.
“My aim is to do my best, I go onto the pitch and I play to the best of my ability. I try to reciprocate and to give back to the fans with my performances, like a big ‘thank you’ for the love they show me.”
It’s fair to say Costa has achieved that aim so far this season — but the big question is whether he can hold off the red mist for the remainder of the campaign. If he can, then Chelsea are going be very difficult to catch.
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