Thursday 23 November 2017

Renaissance man

How Costa put wild ways behind him to become Chelsea’s match-winner

Diego Costa has increased his goals tally while improving his discipline. Photo: Getty
Diego Costa has increased his goals tally while improving his discipline. Photo: Getty

Matt Law

Two moments illustrate the shift in Diego Costa's attitude during the nine-game winning run that has propelled Chelsea to the top of the table.

In October, Costa signalled to the bench that he wanted to come off during the victory over Leicester City. The striker was thinking very much of himself: he had become fed up with being shouted at by head coach Antonio Conte and knew he was one booking away from suspension.

Costa's patience had snapped, but Conte sent the 28-year-old a strong message by ignoring his requests, and the Italian's staff delivered a stern warning after the game that he was not to lash out publicly again.

The incident had echoes of Costa's fallout with Jose Mourinho, which came to a head when he tossed a substitutes' bib at the former manager, but it appears that Conte's insistence that his players perform for the team and not for themselves has got through.

On Sunday, with the game against West Brom goalless and Costa having been kicked and barged at every opportunity by Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley, the forward called over to the bench once again.

There still remained a selfish element to his request, but this time he was not lashing out or complaining. He wanted Cesc Fabregas on the pitch because he knew the midfielder would give him the best chance of winning the game.

Whether or not Conte's decision was influenced by his player's suggestion, the manager sent on Fabregas in the 74th minute and, two minutes later, the former Arsenal man produced the pass that allowed Costa to power past McAuley and fire in a brilliant shot.

Costa also completed another game without a booking, his 10th in succession, the longest he has gone without being cautioned since 2010/11.

Costa has walked a disciplinary tightrope since he was last booked, against Arsenal on September 24, his fourth yellow card of the season. He must still get through four more games, starting against Sunderland tomorrow, without being booked to avoid a one-game suspension.

Nobody inside Chelsea is describing Costa as a reformed character and there has been at least one training-ground clash this season that was quickly patched up.

But, as hinted at by a video filmed by David Luiz that showed Costa dancing in the dressing-room with a bottle of beer after his match-winning strike against West Brom, he appears happy and in more control of his emotions.

"He's exactly the same fella as when he first came into the club," said defender Gary Cahill. "He's just channelling his aggression in the right way and not getting as frustrated as he usually would.

"And, when the goals are coming, he knows that one chance and he'll stick it away."

Even in his first season, in which he scored 20 goals and Chelsea won the title, Costa was not entirely satisfied. He had split up with his girlfriend and failed to learn any English. The weather was getting him down and so was the fact that his discipline was the source of constant debate.

He wanted to return to Atletico Madrid, but Chelsea were not prepared to sell and instead gave him extra time off over the summer to rest his mind and body. Costa took full advantage and, by his own admission, returned for the start of last season overweight and badly out of shape.

Costa started the campaign terribly and his frustration was such that much of his energy was used fighting opponents, Mourinho and, in one training-ground spat, his team-mate Oscar.

Battle

By the time Conte started work this summer, Chelsea faced another battle to hold on to him, with Atletico making their pursuit public. But they again held firm and he has responded well to the hard-work approach of the club's latest manager.

There is a school of thought that Conte's physical and mental demands give Costa fewer opportunities to spend time trying to wind up the opposition or getting annoyed at his team-mates.

He is running further and faster in games and is far more than just a target man for the team. Early in his career, Costa described himself as a 'second striker' and he enjoys being involved outside the penalty area.

Those close to Costa also believe he is more settled in London and is now willing to open negotiations over a new contract in the new year.

Chelsea fans have played their part in the transformation of Costa, who needs to feel loved. He was booed by a section of supporters last season, but is revelling in the renewed adulation that has not been shown to a Stamford Bridge striker since Didier Drogba.

"The fans are getting behind him because he is banging goals in and winning us matches," said Cahill.

"Didier was a huge figure, on and off the pitch. You need strikers like that at a club like Chelsea and Diego is fitting into that role nicely." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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