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Diego Costa, the provocateur, hurting Chelsea's cause

Unless he plays for your team, it's hard to find any love for Diego Costa. Fans of Atletico Madrid, who won a first La Liga crown in 18 years in 2013-14 on the back of his goals, will always have a soft corner for him, but his current travails at Chelsea have attracted only condemnation from rival supporters.

Also Read: Chelsea's Diego Costa slapped with three-match ban over Arsenal fracas

Chelsea's Diego Costa (in blue) and Arsenal's Gabriel argue during their EPL match at Stamford Bridge recently. The incident led to Costa being banned for three matches for provoking Gabriel. Pic/Getty Images
Chelsea's Diego Costa (in blue) and Arsenal's Gabriel argue during their EPL match at Stamford Bridge recently. The incident led to Costa being banned for three matches for provoking Gabriel. Pic/Getty Images

The facts of the case are pretty simple. Costa skirted the line against Arsenal, putting his hands on Laurent Koscielny's face and generally making a nuisance of himself. But it was Arsenal's Gabriel Paulista that retaliated, aiming a snide kick at Costa's shins to get himself sent off. This, though, is the age of television replays, and after studying the evidence, the Football Association rescinded Gabriel's three-match ban, while handing down that punishment to Costa.

Also Read: EPL: Diego Costa should've been sent off twice, says Arsene Wenger

Strange verdict
It was a strange sort of verdict, and Jose Mourinho has every right to be incensed. Costa, as has often been the case, was the provocateur, but it was Gabriel that was foolish enough to retaliate. If there is no punishment for retaliation, football will soon be reduced to professional wrestling.

The coverage of Costa has also exposed English football's hypocrisy. From time immemorial, the English game has celebrated the muscular centre forward. When Everton's Dixie Dean — who scored 60 goals in the 1927-28 season, died, Bill Shankly said he deserved to be compared with Shakespeare, Beethoven and Rembrandt. Nat Lofthouse is remembered as The Lion of Vienna, after his exploits in a post-war game.

In more modern times, Alan Shearer was no shrinking violet. Kevin Davies, often held up as an example of the old-style forward, regularly topped the yellow-card charts. Andy Carroll has accumulated transfer fees of more than 50 million pounds on account of his ability to give defenders a rough ride.

Costa's flailing elbows don't look good on replays, but he's scarcely alone in employing such methods. Shearer was suspended for two European games in late 2002 after throwing an elbow at Fabio Cannavaro. And when Arsene Wenger spoke of Costa's conduct being 'unacceptable', he probably forgot that Denis Bergkamp picked up 46
yellows and four red cards during his time at Arsenal. The scorer of some of the most sublime goals the league has seen also wasn't averse to the odd flailing arm or kick when it suited him.

In Spain, Costa got a lot of joy out of defenders like Gabriel that took the bait. The more experienced campaigners like Sergio Ramos, however, either paid him back in the same coin, or refused to be provoked. It would have been fascinating to see how Costa's former Atletico teammates, Diego Godin and Miranda — as tough and uncompromising a duo as they come — dealt with him.

Costa's indiscretions have already caused him to miss a League Cup win against Walsall (4-1) and a 2-2 draw at Newcastle that leaves Chelsea eight points off the pace seven games into the season. Radamel Falcao and Loic Remy will be the beneficiaries as Mourinho looks to rediscover last autumn's groove, but without Costa's goals, Chelsea have little chance of retaining the title.

After a magnificent start to his Stamford Bridge career, Costa's performances have tailed away a little. Hamstring problems haven't helped, but he also doesn't possess the searing pace or dribbling ability that characterise some of the league's other premier marksmen.

Opportunistic striker
Falcao, when fully fit, was a far more rounded striker, capable of both the spectacular and the mundane. Costa has scored brilliant goals, but his primary strength is being in the right place at the right time, and preying on defenders who don't know how to react to his irritating presence.

There's little doubt that the decision to bring him to Stamford Bridge was confirmed when Atletico won 3-1 there in the Champions League in April 2014. For a team brilliantly set up by Diego Simeone — himself a provocateur supreme in his playing days — Costa was the perfect spearhead.

A few months later, on his first day as a Chelsea player, he greeted John Terry and friends at Cobham with the words: "I go to war. You come with me." With the club's season yet to kick into gear, the need for that warrior is greater than ever.

Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India's editor-in-chief

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