Sunday, 18 December 2016

Diego Costa Nets 50th Chelsea Goal To Down Crystal Palace And Continue His Reformation Act

Diego Costa

On Christmas Day last year, Diego Costa was reflecting on a lost season. It was a shambles of a campaign, a tortuous period in which the manager Jose Mourinho had been sacked and his team were in 15th place and in the midst of their greatest crisis.

Costa had played his own part in the implosion. Before the festivities, he had scored only three Premier League goals, one each at home to relegation-bound Norwich and Aston Villa, as well as one away at West Brom.

By that stage, there were more yellow cards to his name in domestic action than goals and he had even been dropped to the bench by Mourinho for one European encounter.

His game had been reduced to that of an irritant, overshadowed by petty squabbles with opponents, referees and indeed those inside the club.

It seemed he wanted to fight the world and it was a war destined only for a damaging defeat on the battlefield. Costa's goalscoring record would be the greatest fatality.

An awful lot has changed at Chelsea in the past 12 months but the Spanish forward's return to prominence has been the most impressive feat of Conte's remarkable start to life in English football.

When the Italian arrived, Costa was open to a move back to Spain. Atletico Madrid sought to make it happen. Conte stood firm, refusing to indulge his striker's whims.

He did the same against Leicester earlier in the season, unbowed when Costa asked to be taken off towards the end of the game. Costa respects his manager's strength and he has responded.

After scoring the winning goal here, there was a clench of the hands, a smile and a hug for his manager. On the final whistle, another firm embrace. They know where they are heading together and that glory awaits over the horizon.

Conte's team continue to improve, striving to perfect this mightily impressive system.

The 3-4-2-1 is flummoxing every Premier League team and it is stunning in its efficacy.

This was an 11th straight victory and disarming in its simplicity. This was a 1-0 but it was more than that, really. A 1-0 thumping, a triumph that never really appeared in peril.

All over the pitch, Chelsea appear to have an extra man. Every players knows his job to a tee. They press in packs of three, pouncing like pincers to smother the opposition, and moving the ball with a marvellous fluidity.

It is ruthless, clinical football, robust defensively, relentless in the midfield and lethal in the final third.

Costa is the focal point, the glue that moulds this fabulous team together and ensures performances translate into excellent results.

Chelsea have scored some picture-book goals recently and this was another one that underlined all the merits of Conte's formation.

This was the system in motion. A huddle of four Chelsea players won back possession in their own half, working the ball to Marcos Alonso out on the left. Eden Hazard, floating inside, teed up Cesar Azpilicueta, the centre back stepping forward to contribute to attacking play.

In the olden days, they might have called it Total Football. Costa provided the final flourish, rising highest to head the ball in.

This was his thirteenth Premier League goal of the season and that sees Costa overtake the twelve he scored in whole of last season.

It was his 50th Chelsea goal and he has never appeared more content in a Chelsea shirt. Costa now knows that he doesn't need to indulge the dark arts to get where he wants to be.

He can still be a bugger when the urge takes him, collecting a yellow card here that ended a run of 11 league games without a caution. It was his fifth of the season and he will now miss the Boxing Day match at home to Bournemouth.

It is, however, an exception. Costa no longer goes out of his way to infuriate and exasperate.

He doesn't make a big fuss, the incendiary tactics have ground to a halt and the energy he expended in antagonism is being put to better use, hurting opponents in a more tangible way. For that, Conte must surely take the credit.

Boxing Day, even his manager may agree, will be a rest well-earned.



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