Monday 23 January 2017 11:06, UK
We assess Diego Costa's Chelsea comeback after he returned to the starting line-up with a goal and a man-of-the-match performance in their 2-0 win over Hull City at Stamford Bridge…
Diego Costa is rarely far from the headlines, but even by his standards the last fortnight has been hectic. His future at Chelsea was thrown into doubt when he rowed with Antonio Conte over an offer from China before last Saturday's meeting with Leicester, but questions were answered and criticism was silenced with Sunday's match-winning display against Hull.
Costa's low finish from Victor Moses' cut-back in first-half stoppage time was his 15th goal of the season. It helped the Blues open up an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League, and a title challenge that seemed to have struck its first major obstacle suddenly looks stronger than ever.
Costa took aim at his critics with his 'too much talk' celebration, but his all-round performance was an even clearer message to those questioning his commitment. Costa set the tone for the evening when he sent a powerful drive narrowly wide with nine seconds on the clock, and he played like a man with a point to prove right up until he was substituted to a standing ovation in the 86th minute.
His starring display came on a day when Chelsea were well below their best, and it was certainly not the first time he has dragged them to victory this season. The 28-year-old accounted for six of their nine shots against Hull, and he would have had a second goal it wasn't for a fine save by Eldin Jakupovic shortly before his substitution.
Conte had spent much of the build-up to the game dismissing fears over Costa's commitment, and his stance was vindicated by the striker's work-rate at Stamford Bridge. Costa chased down lost causes and harried Hull's defenders throughout. None of his team-mates had made more high-intensity sprints (62) when he left the pitch, and he had also clocked the highest top speed and competed the most duels.
"Right from the start, he wanted to calm everyone down," said Sky Sports pundit Thierry Henry. "He was saying: 'I'm here, I'm back, don't worry.' He kept the ball well, he was trying to chase everything. He was his usual self. He's not fazed by anything that's happening. He came up with a big goal and the story is about him again tomorrow."
Chants of "Diego, Diego, Diego" rang out around Stamford Bridge as he was replaced by Michy Batshuayi. Costa made a point of applauding the fans, and there were handshakes for every member of Chelsea's coaching staff before he took his seat on the bench. Harmony was restored, and Conte used the opportunity to draw a line under the speculation after the game.
"During the press conference before the game, a lot of people asked me about his form, about his attitude, and I told them that I would take the best decision for the team," he told Sky Sports. "I think after his performance that I made the best decision. It is normal to receive a lot of questions about it, but the most important thing for us is the answer that we give on the pitch."
The answer might have been different without Costa. His goal was his 52nd in 100 appearances for Chelsea. It put him level with Alexis Sanchez at the top of the Premier League scoring charts, and his combination of clinical finishing and tireless work-rate is proving the driving force behind the Blues' title challenge.
"Players like him are like gold dust," said Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness. "In the dressing room there will be a few lesser lights who don't want to get involved in confrontation and the physical side of it, but he's the opposite.
"He's the first one to step up and say: 'Fancy a bit of a battle today, chaps? Because I'm right up for it.' That's what he's like every time he goes out and crosses the white line on matchdays, and I imagine he's just the same in training as well."
Events of the last fortnight were a reminder that Costa can push the limits at times, but no player is more important to Chelsea's title prospects this season. He's back in the headlines for the right reasons this time, and with Liverpool and Arsenal next up in the Premier League, the timing could hardly be better.