KEIR RADNEDGE in LONDON: A player who has just top-scored with 27 goals in La Liga, played in the Champions League Final and then at the World Cup for one of the game’s most powerful nations deserves respect when he arrives somewhere new to step up his career.
Diego da Silva Costa did not enjoy that happy luxury when he ramped up at Stamford Bridge. More a suspicion that Chelsea, for once, had been bested by Atletico de Madrid in negotiations out of their desperation to find someone – anyone – to take over the centre-forward role from hapless Fernando Torres.
The last sightings of the 27-year-old had not been encouraging.
He had limped out of the Champions League after his fitness had been misjudged by both himself and his coach (Diego Simeone) and had then played back home in Brazil like a frightened rabbit, scared of both the ball and the possibility of being confronted by the responsibility of an open goal.
“Over-priced, over-paid and over here,” was the assessment of one radio analyst. But that was before kickoff in Chelsea’s season-opening win against Burnley.
Within a mere 17 minutes Costa had scored to start rebuilding his image and perceptions among fans and media. Now the reality adds up to nine goals after seven Premier League games, Chelsea sit top of the table and Costa is top of the scoring rankings.
The strength, eye for goal, speed of thought and reaction in the penalty box add up to all the qualities Chelsea lacked last season when the lack of anartillero was to blame for the inability to match the title-chasing pace of both Liverpool and ultimate champions Manchester City.
Last season Torres totalled five goals, veteran Samuel Eto’o nine and willing but insufficient Demba Ba five.
Chelsea scored 11 goals in their opening seven league matches a year ago. This time they have ranked up 21, are unbeaten with six wins and one draw and will emerge from the international break defending a clear five-point lead over second-placed Manchester City.
For that Costa deserves a great deal of the credit just as Robin Van Persie’s goals made all the difference two seasons ago when Manchester United reclaimed the league title from neighbours City.
No one can doubt that Costa has served a testing apprenticeship since his teenage start with Barcelona Esportivo Capela in Sao Paulo. His European odyssey took him to Braga, Penafiel, Celta de Vigo, Albacete, Valladolid, Rayo Vallecano before he eventually took over the Atletico goal-scoring mantle which had dressed Sergio Aguero then Radamel Falcao.
In the summer of 2013 Liverpool, fearing the eventual departure of Luis Suarez, matched his €25m release clause but he stayed at the Estadio Calderon.
A massively-improved contract was hot the only persuasive factor. With Atletico he knew he would enjoy the security of being a regular starter in a familiar milieu in the run-up to the World Cup.
On April 30 Costa won and converted a penalty in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, as Atlético won 3–1 at Stamford Bridge. That was the final proof to persuade Chelsea that he could be the decisive piece in their title-chasing jigsaw.
To help him feel at home Chelsea garnished a five-year contract worth £150,000-a-week with the No19 he had worn for Atletico and for Spain at the World Cup.
Goals in pre-season friendlies were followed by a debut goal against Burnley, another next time out against Leicester and one more against Everton in his third consecutive match. That earned the Premier League Player of the Month award for August and preceded his first Premier hat-trick against Swansea.
No striker has scored as many as his seven goals in his first four Premier games: Sergio Agüero and Micky Quinn had managed ‘only’ six. Ex-England captain Alan Shearer, won over by Costa’s physicality and strength, described him as “a new Drogba.” That, in Chelsea terms, is the greatest praise possible.
Not that Costa had found it all plain sailing or that latent concerns about his physical resilience over a long, hard English season have vanished.
In his early games opposing defenders found Costa comparatively easy to provoke into flashes of card-risking temper. What all the secret, cynical tricks of the penalty box could not do however was distract him from scoring those goals.
Mourinho, the Special One, describes Costa in his own terms – as a “special player,” adding: “He is one of the best strikers at this moment in football anywhere.”
Shearer, who still ranks as England’s sixth-top scorer of all time with 30 goals and knows all about centre-forwards, says: “Costa is the real deal. When it is not going as it should for Chelsea, they still have a goalscorer who can get them out of trouble.
“He is always available. He always wants the ball to feet and if you want to push him around and bully him it is OK because he will do the same to you.
“As well as goals, he can make the assists, too. He can do pretty much everything. He has made a great start. He will get a hatful of goals if he stays fit because this Chelsea team will create chances for him.”
The only concern is fitness. A hamstring injury wrecked the end of last season and World Cup preparation for Costa. The problem has not gone away. Mourinho makes no secret of a fear that Costa cannot withstand the standard top Premier club demand of three matches in a week.
If Costa’s fitness is a problem now then both he and Chelsea may struggle to maintain their winning momentum into the second half of the season. In the meantime Mourinho is delighted with the magic spell that Costa’s goals have cast over the rest of the Premier League.
The facts tell their own truth; after all, it took Torres 43 games to reach seven goals. Costa returns to the Premier League on Saturday having just managed to score his first goal for Spain. With a visit to Crystal Palace coming up on Saturday and Chelsea already five points clear of Manchester City, it promises to be another bright blue weekend for Diego Costa.