Diego Costa quietens Chinese whispers with goal on Chelsea return
Chelsea striker to the fore as league leaders see off Hull City challenge at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea’s Diego Costa celebrates scoring his team’s first goal against Hull. Photograph: Reuters
Chelsea 2 Hull City 0
For a figure as volatile as Diego Costa, there was something distinctly predictable about all this.
The Chelsea striker had been offered an immediate return to the starting lineup here after an unsettling period marked by lower back spasms and Chinese whispers, and that absence at Leicester last weekend.
Yet here he was departing four minutes from time, with the majority in this arena chorusing his name and Antonio Conte offering a thumped hand clap, as the man whose opening goal had deflated Hull and paved the way for an eight-point lead at the top.
Chelsea have no interest in selling their leading scorer this month, whether Tianjin Quanjian offer £80m or £150m. His long-term future can be addressed in the summer but, for now, reintegration almost feels complete, unless those back pains return with a vengeance. The forward was at his committed best here, working feverishly whether leading the line or dropping deep to assist his team-mates.
Hull will take heart from their rugged resistance as they contemplate their battle against relegation, but the scriptwriters always had this down as Costa’s occasion. He did not disappoint.
The striker had waited until almost eight minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half to make his mark. Chelsea, for all their monopoly of possession, had run aground too often on Marco Silva’s well drilled ranks with Hull’s resolve undisturbed even by the loss of Ryan Mason after a sickening clash of heads with Gary Cahill just after the quarter-hour mark.
The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, a Chelsea supporter as a child, had received oxygen while lying prone on the turf undergoing treatment from members of both clubs’ medical staff. He departed on a stretcher, bound for tests at St Mary’s hospital.
David Meyler’s introduction had arguably stiffened the visitors’ resolve further, the substitute muscling his way into the contest as the hosts sought a foothold. There were penalty appeals after Pedro crumpled under Omar Elabdellaoui’s challenge, and a fine save from Eldin Jakupovic to paw away Marcos Alonso’s shot as it ballooned up from Michael Dawson, but, for all that Curtis Davies was fortunate not to be sent off for a pair of fouls, Chelsea were pining for invention.
Indeed, Harry Maguire had gleaned clearer sights of goal, his free header caught by Thibaut Courtois before the Belgian was forced to push aside a battered effort from distance from the centre-half. The defender’s rampaging bursts forward were a regular highlight of the contest.
Yet Costa was never likely to allow this occasion to pass him by. Just as Hull were contemplating the break, and bemoaning the non-award of a free-kick for Cahill’s tug back on Abel Hernández, Victor Moses squeezed space away from Andy Robertson down the flank and pulled his centre back across the muddle of bodies in the six-yard box.
Costa had held himself slightly back, easing himself away from Maguire, and connected truly. His side-foot flew in off Jakupovic’s left boot for a 15th league goal of the season with the celebrations, pinching thumb and fingers together with his hands lifted to his ears, presumably suggested there had been too much chat around the events of the last fortnight.
The leaders would have anticipated a more comfortable second half, with Hull forced to take more risks in search of parity, but Silva has inspired a reaction in this group the kind of which Sam Allardyce can only dream across the capital at Crystal Palace. Hernández should have been awarded a penalty after Marcos Alonso’s foul, while Courtois had to react smartly to turn away Meyler’s skimmed attempt from 20 yards.
For a while, Chelsea flirted with seeing their lead pegged back. Then, nine minutes from time, the substitute Cesc Fàbregas’ free-kick arced into the six-yard box where Oumar Niasse mystifyingly ducked and Sam Clucas dawdled, allowing Cahill a free header from point-blank range.
Jakupovic did well to deny Costa another in what time remained, with his departure before the end drawing that standing ovation. Bridges have been rebuilt.