Diego Costa puts China controversy behind him as Chelsea grind out victory against Hull

Chelsea 2 Hull City 0: The Blues extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to eight points

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Stamford Bridge
Sunday 22 January 2017 19:38 GMT
Costa's strike on the stroke of half-time took his goals tally to 15
Costa's strike on the stroke of half-time took his goals tally to 15 (Getty Images)

When Chelsea’s first real chance of this poor game fell to Diego Costa, Antonio Conte must have felt vindication and relief about putting him straight back into the team. If it felt like a difficult decision during the week, it was an obvious call during this match.

Forget Tianjin Quanjian, the £30million salary offer and a row about an apparent back injury. Costa is Chelsea’s best and most important player and the number two reason, behind Conte himself, why they are going to win the Premier League title. Costa had to play, whatever happened at Leicester last Saturday, it would have been self-defeating in the extreme for Conte not to pick him here.

Had Costa not put Chelsea ahead in the seventh minute of first-half added time, it might have been a very different game. Chelsea were well frustrated by Hull City and looked at risk of not taking advantage of other helpful Premier League results earlier this weekend.

But all season Chelsea have had that quick switch out to Victor Moses as their secret weapon to catch opponents off guard. Here it was Marcos Alonso who delivered it, driving the ball across to Moses, overlapping down the right. Andy Robertson could not get out to stop him so Moses drove a low cross into the box. The ball zipped along between four Hull defenders to Costa, alert as ever, who put the ball into the corner of the net.

Costa celebrated with his two hands out snapping like talking mouths. There certainly has been a lot said about Costa in the last 10 days but no-one was saying that he was not the best striker in the country right now. Costa must surely have realised by the end of the game how popular he still is here. Conte urged the Chelsea fans to support Costa and they were unanimous in cheering his name, giving him a standing ovation when he was taken off in the last minute.

By that point Chelsea were 2-0 up and this win, devoid of drama or spectacle, still felt like one of their most important of the season. Any risk of instability or distraction, after the defeat at White Hart Lane and Costa’s wantaway strop, has been seen off now. Chelsea are back to normal, back in control, and looking likelier than ever to stroll to this year’s title. They are eight points ahead of Arsenal, nine ahead of Tottenham, 10 ahead of Liverpool and looking unstoppable at the top. It will take more than this to derail this title challenge.

Beyond Costa’s goal, Chelsea did not do much but they did not need to. Costa nearly scored after just nine seconds but the biggest moment of the first half was an eight-minute stoppage for a clash of heads between Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill, which saw Mason taken to hospital, as well as creating enough added time for Costa to put Chelsea ahead. He had had a goal disallowed for offside before then but, for the most part, Chelsea were well frustrated by Hull’s back five.

In the second half, with the lead, Chelsea were happy to sit back, invite Hull onto them and wait for the break. It did not make for a great contest but Conte trusted that his back-line was always strong enough, and he was right. Eventually Conte made changes, bringing on Willian and Cesc Fabregas, giving his team extra edge. Together they produced the second goal. Willian won a free-kick, Fabregas whipped it in and Cahill got up at the far post, ahead of the ducking Oumar Niasse, to power in a header.

Ryan Mason was hospitalised after a clash of heads with Gary Cahill (Getty)

That was the end of the match and while it was a comfortable win, Hull can certainly be proud of how they played. Marco Silva’s 5-4-1 made it difficult for Chelsea in the first half and the likely champions created far fewer chances than normal. This was not a Hull team built to be dangerous by they all worked hard and in Harry Maguire, the centre back who loves to charge forward, they always had something a bit different.

In the second half Maguire led the charge a few times, forcing a good save from Thibaut Courtois. Hull might have had a penalty when Abel Hernandez was tripped by Alonso in the box but it was not the sort of a decision a team like Hull gets at a place like Chelsea in a game like this.

Cahill clinched the three points with a second-half header (AFP/Getty Images)

The fact that Swansea City won at Liverpool yesterday means that Hull could not view this game as a write-off, one that they could afford to lose. They made things difficult for Chelsea but not too difficult to stop Diego Costa. No-one has succeeded in putting this juggernaut off its path this season and with just 16 games to go, it feels as if no one will.

Chelsea (3-4-3) Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro (Willian, 71), Costa (Batshuayi, 86), Hazaard (Fabregas, 70)

Hull City (5-2-2-1) Jakupovic; Elabdellaoui, Maguire, Dawson, Davies (Niasse, 59), Robertson; Huddlestone, Mason (Meyler, 21); Clucas, Evandro; Hernandez (Diomande, 75)

MoM Costa

Rating 4

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