Wednesday 21 February 2018

Comment - Watching man-child Diego Costa's antics up close makes you think, how does Antonio Conte deal with him?

Chelsea's Brazilian-born Spanish striker Diego Costa
Chelsea's Brazilian-born Spanish striker Diego Costa

Sam Wallace

As Antonio Conte spoke in the confines of a small crowded room in the West Stand at the Hawthorns, close to midnight on Friday, those of us present were treated to the singular experience of what it must be like to deal, on a daily basis, with the challenging personality of Diego Costa.

The Brazilian centre-forward was in the room too, shouting random English words, invading everyone's personal space, shrieking in frustration and eyeballing anyone who dared to prolong the interview by asking his manager a question. Looking into those eyes, one had the strong suspicion that although the lights were on, it was by no means certain that anyone was home.

It was late in the West Midlands, the Premier League title had been sealed two hours earlier, and Chelsea's top goalscorer wanted to head back to the celebrations in London, and could not see why his manager was delaying.

Earlier he and David Luiz had dragged Conte out of the post-match press conference but the Italian and Chelsea's director of communications Steve Atkins had faithfully returned to fulfil a promise to speak to the Sunday newspapers.

When Costa later removed a fire extinguisher from the wall and aimed the nozzle at his manager, and a group of us leant in close to catch the Italian's words, it was Atkins, a former UK foreign office press aide, who spotted the danger first. "Diego!" he shouted, and Luiz reached over to gently remove the fire extinguisher, as one might guide an eight-year-old with behavioural issues away from the kitchen knife rack.

While Conte continued to take questions, Costa occupied himself for a while doing pull-ups on a scaffold structure that had been built in the room.

Drink had been taken earlier in the changing rooms where footage had shown Costa in his underpants simulating a sex act on a kitman and then trying to rinse away the champagne he had inadvertently poured in his eyes with orange Lucozade.

Tiring once more of the delay, Costa thrust that preternaturally aged face of his into the group of reporters, and towards his manager. "Diego is number one!" he shouted. "Diego loves you!"

Conte looked up at his centre-forward, the man who had run tirelessly all season, clocked 20 league goals and six assists, and only once thrown the proverbial toys out the pram when there was all that fuss about his potential move to China. Conte saw the man-child who has been at the centre of the very best and some of the worst of Chelsea over three turbulent seasons, and sighed.

"Yes, Diego," the Chelsea manager said plaintively, "I love you too."

They disappeared shortly afterwards, the three giant figures of Luiz, Costa and John Terry, steering their 'Mister' down the narrow corridors of the Hawthorns to the coach outside that would take them to their plane home.

Just five minutes in the presence of Chelsea's goalscorer had been exhausting, not to mention unsettling on any number of levels. What must it be like to work with him for nine months of the year?

It was a reminder of the disparate group of multi-millionaire characters whom Conte has dragged together and forged into a title-winning team in such a short space of time. He has reintroduced Luiz, sidelined Terry and somehow managed to keep Costa operational despite his history of mishaps and that episode in January when he wanted to leave for the Chinese Super League.

As Chelsea know only too well from their previous league title, the most dangerous thing now would be to neglect the strengthening job that will have to be done in the summer. For all his achievements this season it feels like Costa will leave, although he may surprise us and dig his heels in if he feels that the move is not right. Chelsea do need to evolve, however, and just as Conte shocked them into life this season with a radical formation shift it feels like he needs to do the same thing again.

One challenge will be keeping individuals happy, like Willian, their outstanding player in last season's 10th-place finish but this season more often a substitute. The Brazil international has been the biggest loser from the switch to a 3-4-3 formation, with his regular role in a conventional wide position abolished in favour of hard-running wing-backs.

"My future is here with Chelsea," Willian said, "I have a contract with Chelsea until 2020 and I am happy here. I know sometimes players always want to play but I understand why I don't play much." Willian is rather more of a diplomat than his fellow Brazilian Costa, and he will know that although there is strong interest from Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, there remains little chance of Chelsea permitting him to go there.

Nemanja Matic, another 2015 title-winner whom Conte has restored to top form, said that the change in fortune had been hard-won. "He [Conte] works a lot." Had it been, as the story goes, a hard pre-season in Austria? "Yes, but not only Austria - all season. Tactically it is not hard, you just have to concentrate. Physically it is more difficult. We knew that we had to do this. If you want to be champions and fight for the title you have to be fit and tactically better than other teams."

They had certainly been all those things, but the level of competition in the Premier League has punished the previous two champions in the season that has followed. This year Chelsea have had the edge on everyone, but that competitive line is a hard one to tread, as simple as the difference between certain players being an asset or being a problem.


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