Football

Neil Humphreys: Chelsea must keep Costa the menace

EPL's finest villain would be mad to swop Chelsea for China

Diego Costa might be the only footballer whose goal celebrations consist of grunting.

His facial features, seemingly put together by a kindergarten kid with too much Play-Doh, appear incapable of smiling.

His two outstanding goals in the 4-2 win against Southampton yesterday morning (Singapore time) were rewarded with contorted snarls and grunts.

He looked less like a Chelsea hero than a constipated man in search of a toilet.

The Spaniard is an uncompromising throwback to simpler times of mud-caked pitches, knee-high tackles, broken bones and grabbed groins.

In a sanitised world of bland, media-savvy superstars, Costa represents a glorious contrast of flaws and failings, an old-school hoodlum to boo and hiss.

For that reason, he should not leave Chelsea's title parade for China's tax-free cash at the end of the season. China's gain would certainly be the English Premier League's loss.

Despite Costa's dodgy temperament - or precisely because of his dodgy temperament - Antonio Conte must surely be eager to retain the services of his penalty-box bully.

Costa carries the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other.

His rare ability to combine the two gave Chelsea a seven-point lead at the top of the EPL, ahead of Tottenham's match against Crystal Palace this morning.

Throughout the contest, the Spaniard engaged in a fascinating, bicep-flexing battle with Saints fullback Ryan Bertrand.

For strikers, it's very important to score. Goals are your life. I always said I'm very pleased with his commitment, his work for the team. Now he must continue. Antonio Conte on Diego Costa

At one set-piece, Costa threw Bertrand to the ground with the punishing force of a parent accidentally knocking over a toddler. Such cynical displays of aggression make the Spaniard a hard man to love.

But they also make him a hard man. That's the point.

A little later, Costa and Bertrand locked arms again in an extraordinary bout of grappling, unable to move as their similar strengths almost cancelled each other out.

And then, Costa broke free and directed a header into the bottom corner, scoring Chelsea's decisive third goal.

Bertrand, wide-eyed and wounded, looked like a confused wrestler being counted out on the canvas.

Of course, if Costa relied exclusively on raw aggression to score his goals, then he would be no more than a retro No. 9 in the guise of John Fashanu or Duncan Ferguson.

But he also has that angel on the other shoulder.

On three occasions, he found Eden Hazard with finessed, delicate passes that took the breath away. The Belgian dispatched one and should have put away the others.

Costa's graceful touch and subtlety are occasionally glossed over for not fitting the lazy narrative of the thuggish brute. He was anything but against Southampton.

His second goal - his 51st EPL goal for Chelsea - was the kind of finish that purists gush over if the jersey reads "Tottenham" - the current poster boys for attractive football.

The Saints drowned in a wave of dizzying one-twos, with Costa the creative fulcrum. 

Passes were swopped with Hazard and then Pedro Rodriguez before Costa danced between defenders to apply a perfect finish.

It was the aesthetic equal of anything produced at White Hart Lane, Anfield or the Etihad this season. And Costa made the move happen.

So why the 28-year-old would be allowed to leave the world's most popular league for arguably the world's most ridiculous is a mystery, beyond the millions that would end up in his account of course.

Costa may be an acquired taste, but he's not unpalatable.

On the contrary, his very human flaws make him all the more watchable.

He's car-crash viewing.

Only this crash involves a sleek Ferrari and a muscular Humvee.

Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United could easily make room for him in their current line-ups and his telepathic understanding with Hazard suggested he'd have little difficulty working with Manchester City's mercurial talents either.

Costa scores, assists, takes out defenders, falls over too often, dupes referees, infuriates rival supporters, antagonises other managers (along with his own) and does all of the above with less charm than Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street.

He polarises just as much as he impresses. 

But Chelsea would not win the league without him.

Interestingly, Stamford Bridge gave John Terry a standing ovation when he came on for a cameo as part of his long goodbye, but Costa's departure may be the most damaging in the short term.

Chelsea have no obvious replacement for their merchant of menace. And the EPL will be in the market for a new pantomime villain.

npsports@sph.com.sg