If Diego Costa is a hit Chelsea should be champions
The Premier League will hope Costa, Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal (plus a fit Aaron Ramsey) and Louis van Gaal can help fill the personality void left by Luis Suarez
Chelsea’s Diego Costa celebrates scoring his side’s first goal during a pre-season friendly at Stamford Bridge The club are pinning their Premier League title hopes hopes on the former Atletico Madrid man hitting the back of the net regularl in the season ahead. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
Given a ball has not been kicked and around 500 players are yet to appear in any of the 380 Premier League matches that will unfold across the next 10 months, it sounds like the height of speculative stupidity to say so: but, if Diego Costa scores between 15 and 20 goals in the league, then next May Chelsea should be collecting their first title since 2010.
Pleasing uncertaintyThat the use of should in that sentence could easily be may is indicative of a pleasing uncertainty: there is increased jostling at the top of the League, Costa has never played in English football and his arrival as Jose Mourinho’s missing spearhead is currently of only potential success.
But Costa is as enticing as any of the recruits – in suits or boots – to have landed in post-World Cup England, where the national club game has immediately resumed its pre-eminence over the national team.
Costa scored 35 goals last season, 27 of them in La Liga for Atletico Madrid. He is 25, six months younger than Didier Drogba was when he first joined Chelsea in 2004. Drogba cost Chelsea a club record €30 million then; Costa has been bought for €40 million. In Drogba’s first season at Stamford Bridge – also Mourinho’s – Chelsea accumulated 16 points more than in the previous season. They won their first league title since 1955. Drogba was essential to a great leap forward. Costa could be, too.
Last season Chelsea finished four points behind champions Manchester City, even though Mourinho had a superior defence. Chelsea’s problem, as he lamented long and loud, was in attack. City scored 31 goals more than Chelsea; Liverpool scored 30 more. At a club with Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba, only Eden Hazard managed double figures in the Premier League.
At City, not only did Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko contribute 33 league goals between them, Yaya Toure scored 20. That made Toure the Premier League’s third-top scorer – behind Liverpool pair Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge – and those names, those statistics, are why Costa is in west London.
With Cesc Fabregas an experienced Premier League midfield operator and Thibaut Courtois returned from his loan at Costa’s Atletico, Mourinho has stiffened his spine.
He had already brought Nemanja Matic back from Benfica, in January, and we shall now see just how good the Serb is over a season in which Chelsea will compete for four trophies.
Drogba is another Mourinho has called upon. He may be 36 but his physique suggests otherwise and Drogba can be used to put an arm around Costa in case of injury or a lean spell.
Put it together and there is a lot to like about Chelsea’s recent activity – including raising €130 million by selling Juan Mata, David Luiz and Romelu Lukaku – while Hazard, Oscar and Andre Schürrle – whose pass set up the World Cup-winning goal for Mario Götze – have more awareness of what English football entails. Going to Turf Moor to face Burnley on Monday night will not be the culture shock it might have been.
That will be the first opportunity to see Costa in a real English setting.
Tight team-pressConsidering how deeply Costa was involved in Atletico’s fascinating season, he may not have heard of the rise of Burnley, or Sean Dyche’s tight team-press. As they were finishing second to Leicester City in the Championship, Costa was expecting to be a key figure in the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
And he did influence it, it’s just he did so by starting despite not being fit and then sloping off after nine minutes. He was then less than effervescent for Spain at the World Cup. So Costa has a bit to prove to his new audience, while Fabregas will feel the same about the fans in Spain. Those motivational factors should count.
There appeared to be some ego at work in Costa’s decision to declare himself fit for the Champions League final, while in La Liga Costa’s behaviour at times earned him a reputation not wholly dissimilar to Suarez’s. The year before last, one Marca headline was: “Dr Jekyll and Mr Costa”.
Although Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore said otherwise, the loss of Suarez to Barcelona will be felt by more than the regulars at Anfield. In a division of patchy quality, there has been a supply of “stories” to maintain interest and Suarez has been central to Premier League plots for four seasons. Now England’s footballer of the year is in Catalonia, joining previous winner Gareth Bale in La Liga, where another yet winner of that award, Cristiano Ronaldo, remains.
The Premier League will hope Costa, Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal (plus a fit Aaron Ramsey) and Louis van Gaal, can help fill the personality void left by Suarez.
The League will further hope Van Gaal’s arrival at Manchester United and Mauricio Pochettino’s at Tottenham, will up the ante at the top to make it a genuine seven-runner marathon.
That number takes in last season’s fifth-placed team, Everton. Christian Atsu, signed by them on loan from Chelsea, is a cute recruit.
United have 22 points to make up on Man City, but will have monthly rest provided by no European football. United lost the same number of home games as Norwich last season and a van Gaal priority will be to make Old Trafford daunting again. But United still have defensive questions.
Liverpool made Anfield formidable last season, until thatslip, and how Brendan Rodgers copes with increased expectation, Champions League football and no Suarez will be testing for the Irishman.
Rodgers’ personal standing on Merseyside soared last season, but it can fall away again. For him, this season is that difficult second album.
It was Liverpool’s retention of Suarez last summer that shaped their season and, though City won the title, the season will be remembered for the team that came second.
It will be recalled, too, for David Moyes and the United implosion, and for the team that came 11th: Crystal Palace.
The unpredictability a relative concept – at the top is welcome and football does love a gamble.
But there is value in certainty – Palace knew what they were getting when they employed Tony Pulis last November with seven points from 12 games. Pulis brought discipline and cohesion; the delight for Palace was that he also brought success – survival.
Yet on Thursday night, Palace lost that certainty as Pulis delivered the first storyline of the new season by walking away from Selhurst Park.
LucrativeThe new television deal means it has never been so lucrative to be mid-table, and Pulis’s methods and ambition clashed with Palace’s. A similar disagreement, except the other way round, was partly behind Swansea City dispensing with Michael Laudrup last season.
Inevitably Laudrup’s successor, Garry Monk, features in the managerial sack race predictions and with prize money so great expect speculation at West Ham (Sam Allardyce) and West Brom (Alan Irvine). Also expect English voices in the dugout – Monk, Allardyce, Bruce, Dyche, Pardew, Pearson and Redknapp – referees with shaving foam spray, endless 3-5-2 discussions, inflated crowd figures and a rumbling ticket-price backlash.
And don’t forget: May 13th, Yaya Toure’s birthday.