Diego Costa: Chelsea striker has the stamp of quality but must control the beast

There are no hiding places now for the likes of Chelsea’s controversial striker

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The Independent Football

If you have not seen the footage in question it is worth watching the video of Diego Costa taking on Pepe and Sergio Ramos in a game between Atletico and Real Madrid in 2012 because on that evidence (below), Martin Skrtel did not get the full treatment on Tuesday. That is to say the Liverpool man is yet to experience what you might call Costa’s signature move, the gob-in-a-glove.

Against Real that night, Costa repeatedly spat into his glove and then surreptitiously flicked the contents into the face of Ramos. It is hard to think of a more repellent wind-up trick and it would be fair to say that it worked in incensing Ramos. Again and again he tried to explain what had happened to a bemused referee who was never quite close enough to work out what Costa was up to.

Watching from the dugout, the Real manager that night was Jose Mourinho who, far from looking upon Costa’s actions with horror, evidently recognised in Atletico’s No 19 a man he considered useful. Given that they shared the same Portuguese super-agent, Jorge Mendes, it was nigh on inevitable that once Mourinho had his feet under the desk at Chelsea, Costa would not be too far behind.

 

Against Liverpool on Tuesday night in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg, Costa demonstrated just how far he was prepared to go to win a match. He looks like a guerrilla fighter straight out of Hollywood central casting or one of those Treadstone assassins routinely unleashed to dispatch Jason Bourne. The big difference being that it would be hard to imagine Costa not finishing the job. His two stamps on Emre Can and Skrtel were sufficiently disguised that Mourinho could be bold enough post-match to make the claim they were “absolutely accidental”.

That was a nonsense, of course, although by the following day even those at the FA with some experience of these matters were confessing that the Can stamp was the one more likely to stick while the Skrtel incident was by no means clear. So it turned out that Costa was charged with violent conduct over the Can stamp but not the other. There are no hiding places for the dark arts in modern football’s HD, super slow-mo world and it is a better place for that.

Gary Lineker tweeted on Tuesday night that Costa was “a throwback to an age of beastly centre-forwards”, the natural heir to Mick Harford, Billy Whitehurst, John Fashanu, Duncan Ferguson et al. Of course, those strikers played against some beastly centre-halves too and when you consider those whom Costa has taken on - Ramos and Pepe; John Terry in last season’s Champions League; Ryan Shawcross before Christmas and now Skrtel - it is not as if he is picking on the weaklings.

There can be no condoning of some of what Costa does, including the challenges on Can and Skrtel. It is just, there is something utterly belligerent about him, a belligerence that for all his clenched jaw, hard-stare grandstanding, can be a quite compelling quality in a centre-forward. You can see what Mourinho spotted in him, even if it can be impossible to defend him at times.

As a rule, he does not wait for the first warning tackle from his centre-back to commence hostilities. Right from the very start of games he works his favourite old trick, an innocuous step backwards and the planting of the studs on the heel of his boot onto the toes of a defender. You often see a centre-half marking Costa throw up his arms in protest in the first few minutes of a game.

It is notable that boot sponsors adidas did not regard Costa as quite a big enough name to take centre-stage of their latest boot commercial, “There will be haters”, despite the fact he is much better-suited to that dubious notion than the clean-cut James Rodriguez or Gareth Bale. Nevertheless, Costa was there under the “haters” slogan in a full-page adidas advert in Tuesday’s match programme, head tipped back, eyes narrowed, hamming up the bad-boy pose.

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Emre Can reacts after a first half stamp

The anecdotal evidence is that off the pitch he is a good bloke, which has helped with his integration into the Spain squad. His team-mates like him. Even Ramos could often be relied upon, at the final whistle, to throw an arm around the man who had earlier tried to wipe saliva on his cheek. It does beg the question what Costa would had to have done to really upset Ramos.

The natural comparison is with another South American, recently departed from the Premier League, who does take centre-stage on the aforementioned adidas commercial. Luis Suarez, however, always had a powerful need to be liked. His usual post-offence cycle of implausible denial, followed by confused explanation, and onto reluctant apology suggested he had a hard time being a hate-figure. Costa, it seems, would not have it any other way.

Mourinho always returns to the theme of the tough nature of Costa’s football education, or the lack of it. He never went to any of the great European club academies who try to turn out well-rounded individuals as well as top footballers. Having been brought to Europe by Braga in Portugal he was then loaned to Penafiel in the country’s second division. Thence to Atletico. In Spain he was  sent off six times in his first 130 games, including one for a head-butt in a Europa League game in 2012.

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Costa will not be charged for this stamp

Many of those formative experiences were on loan at Celta Vigo and Albacete and then Valladolid, to whom he was briefly sold, before he was brought back to Atletico and then loaned again to Rayo Vallecano. His time in England would suggest he has refined his game since then with eight bookings and no red cards yet in 27 appearances up to now. The appeal for Mourinho is obvious, and so far the Chelsea manager has rushed to the defence of his player at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, stamping is unforgivable and it seems that Costa will indeed pay a high price for his actions against Liverpool on Tuesday night. Like all strikers, he takes a lot of punishment from the defenders who mark him. Both push that battle to the limits. The difference with Costa is that he does so without apology, impervious to what anyone thinks. There is a place in the game for that beastly old striker, but for now he has three games to contemplate where the boundaries lie.

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Braga to the Bridge - Costa’s career

Born 1988 Lagarto, Brazil

2006 Begins at Portuguese side Braga.

2007 Signs for Atletico Madrid but loaned back to Braga, then Celta Vigo and Albacete, both in the  Segunda Division.

2009 Moves to Valladolid in La Liga, with Atletico retaining a buy-back clause. Scores eight goals in a relegation campaign.

2010 Returns to Atletico. Sustains serious knee injury in July 2011, then loaned to Rayo Vallecano.

2013 Top scorer for Atletico as they win Copa del Rey. Capped by Brazil.

2014 Gets 27 goals in La Liga triumph, and plays key role in run to Champions League final. Switches to Spain and goes to World Cup. Makes £32m move to Chelsea.

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