Throughout history, they’ve mined coal, slate and gold in South Wales. On Sunday afternoon, someone found a seam of pure Diego Costa. Hate him or love him, Chelsea’s striker makes for a magnificent spectacle.
“Diego is a passionate man. For this reason he sometimes risks a yellow card,” Conte said in the build-up the game, with an admirable nod to stating the bleeding obvious. “He must transfer his emotions on to the pitch in the right way. Always.”
If that is Conte’s demand of Costa, he might want to have another quiet word with his striker on Monday, just to check that the message wasn’t lost in translation. Rather than tone down his own brand of magnificent bastardry, Costa turned it up to 11.
Costa was booked for a tempestuous tackle, but also scored the opener, the late equaliser and led the line magnificently. Jordi Amat in particular was lucky not to be sent off for his own response to Costa’s horseplay, which involved steaming into players about to receive the ball at feet. The Spaniard’s ability to make 20,000 people froth at the mouth with anger is now legendary. Whatever Swansea supporters may say, that’s a compliment.
“One of the phrases Antonio Conte uses most regularly is, ‘I consider defeat to be a state of virtual death,’” Italian journalist Alessandro Alciato recalled when Conte was appointed as Chelsea manager, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the Italian has thus far failed to cool Costa down to a level below boiling point. As Conte screamed and bellowed from the touchline with the demeanour of a particularly nasty PE teacher in the middle of a messy family break-up, it was easy to see where Costa took his lead. With four goals and four yellow cards in four Premier League games, Conte has instantly produced a distilled version of his effervescent striker. It’s a particularly potent moonshine.
Costa’s greatest ability – okay, okay, apart from sh*thousery – is to play as a lone striker and yet never become isolated. His 58 touches of the ball up front on his own is a testament to that, as were his 22 duels in 90 minutes; that figure the highest of any Premier League player this weekend. Costa also won seven fouls, a total not surpassed by any player in a game yet this season.
The archetypal Costa moment seemed to have come early in the second half, when the Spaniard collected the ball on halfway before being faced with three defenders. He ran past one and held off another before winning a free-kick from the third with an exaggerated fall. Only Costa could surpass that with an overhead kick equaliser in which his boot followed through onto a defender’s head.
After two goals conceded in 130 seconds altered the course of Chelsea’s afternoon – if not their season – Alan Smith on Sky Sports described how this might be a “lesson” for Antonio Conte. “Teams come back at you in this league and won’t lie down,” Smith said.
Having beaten Belgium and Spain in the European Championships this summer and won three Serie A titles, we can presume that Conte didn’t assume that victory had been secured at 1-0. That will only have made the manner of Chelsea’s collapse more frustrating. Chelsea did respond, but also created plenty enough to justify victory.
The fault for that lay not at the feet of Costa, but the profligacy of teammates who registered 23 shots but only four on target. It lay at the (literal) feet of Thibaut Courtois, who completed a miserable weekend for high-profile goalkeepers by bringing down Gylfi Sigurdsson. It lay at the feet of Andre Marriner, who inexplicably allowed Leroy Fer to kick Gary Cahill and put Swansea ahead. Blame others, but don’t blame Diego.
“I want him to improve in this aspect,” Conte continued in that pre-match press conference. “I want to have Diego Costa in all the games. I want him to play with the right passion and the right aggression.”
It’s a noble intention, but an endeavour that many have attempted and failed pursuing. The behaviour is now far too entrenched to be altered, and Antonio Conte may have to face the reality: This is Diego Costa, for better and for worse. On Sunday’s evidence, you wouldn’t want him any other way.