Diego Costa returns to Chelsea in Wolves colours on Saturday; the striker gained a fierce reputation in England during his Blues spell between 2014 and 2017; follow Chelsea vs Wolves on Sky Sports’ digital platforms from 1.30pm; kick-off 3pm
Diego Costa returns to Chelsea in Wolves colours on Saturday
Diego Costa was up for a fight as soon as he walked in through the doors at Chelsea.
It is pre-season ahead of the 2014/15 Premier League campaign and while the rest of the Blues squad are sitting down for a meal, their new striker – signed from Atletico Madrid – is standing in the middle of the room with boxing gloves, taking on kit man Billy McCollough in a light-hearted sparring session.
McCollough falls to the ground under pressure from the Spanish-Brazilian striker, with no-one 100 per cent sure whether Costa is going along with the joke or actually looking to win the fight.
“I knew we were going to win the league after that,” said then-Chelsea captain John Terry years later. How right the defender would be.
Costa helped Chelsea win two league titles, being top goalscorer in both seasons
In three years at Stamford Bridge, and at a club where strikers have historically struggled to make their mark, Costa managed to pick up two Premier League winners’ medals and score 59 goals in 120 games, but also pick up a clear reputation: loved by Chelsea, hated by the rest.
But the tables will now turn as Costa goes to Chelsea as a visiting player with Wolves on Saturday.
Over the years, Chelsea have toiled in finding a reliable striker in the post-Didier Drogba days. Romelu Lukaku had two fair cracks at the whip and failed, while the likes of Alvaro Morata, Gonzalo Higuain, Fernando Torres and Timo Werner all struggled to live up to the hype that preceded their Stamford Bridge careers.
No striker managed as quick an impact on Chelsea life as Costa in his three-year spell in west London between 2014 and 2017. Then again, there are not many strikers around like him.
Alongside the 59 Chelsea goals, there were 31 yellow cards – which told you a lot of what you needed to know about the forward. Costa would put himself out to rile up opposition defenders without the ball – then beat them with it.
The tactic worked quite often, especially against the right kind of opposition. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were one example of a team who could not resist nibbling at whatever bait Costa put forward.
In the 2015/16 season, Costa succeeded in getting Arsenal players sent off in both league matches. Both came in different circumstances. The first saw him get into Gabriel Paulista’s head – with the defender sent off for violent conduct for a kick out at Costa, who helped his side to a 2-0 home win.
Then, in the return fixture at the Emirates, Costa showed excellent striker movement which saw Per Mertesacker dismissed for a professional foul. Costa then pulled off a similar move to score the winning goal that evening in a 1-0 victory.
Other teams felt it too. Even the Wolves team-mates he currently plays alongside were unsure of what type of atmosphere he would bring before signing for the Molineux club this autumn.
“In the past, I thought he wasn’t a technical player and just wanted to fight,” Wolves attacker Daniel Podence told Sky Sports News this week. “But now he’s here, it’s unbelievable to see how good he is with the ball, with his feet, and still fighting for the ball.
“I can now understand how he scored so many goals and won so many titles in Atletico and Chelsea. Playing with him will be very good for us both, so I’m very happy. We needed someone who can fight because I think we have had a lack of aggression and winning duels.”
Now Wolves are embracing what this forward can bring. Before his sacking this week, Bruno Lage revealed the first thing Costa said to him after signing for the club: “I’m a very nice guy off the pitch, but I’m very nasty inside of the pitch.”
Ahead of the trip to Chelsea, Wolves interim coach Steve Davis says Costa has a lot of “hot blood” in him.
At 34, Costa is clearly not the same striker who dominated Premier League defences back in the mid-2010s. But his half-hour cameo for Wolves away at West Ham on Saturday Night Football last week shows there are signs that some aspects of his game still remain in terms of quality and technique.
Despite the London Stadium clash being his first game in 11 months, Costa put himself at the heart of the action, drew in West Ham’s defenders and linked up well with his team-mates.
He made eight completed passes into the final third in that 30 minute-period. Had he been playing since the start of the season with that rate, then only one player – Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez – would have managed more all season.
There were promising individual moments in the final third too. Costa looked like he had set up Podence for a goal back in the 2-0 defeat but was called offside by VAR. The Wolves striker would have got on the scoresheet, had he put his penalty-box header on target instead of wide with Lukasz Fabianksi stranded. A sharper Costa with more minutes under his belt would have put that away.
But a reminder that technical ability is only one part of Costa’s game that Chelsea may need to be wary of going into Saturday’s clash at Stamford Bridge. Blues defender Thiago Silva – who will likely mark Costa in west London – knows that better than most.
“I played with Diego Costa once for the Brazilian national team. He is a very good boy off the pitch. He makes you laugh,'”Silva said back in 2017 before his PSG side took on Costa’s Chelsea.
“But, on the pitch, it is difficult. If you speak to him, you lose focus on the match. That is why I let him talk to himself. You get the impression that he is just a crazy person talking to himself.”
Costa may be a slight shadow of the figure who began his Premier League career at Chelsea eight years ago, but the fight in the dog never goes away.