Heart Of Football

Strikers for hire like Costa don't stay long

"Every time Diego played for Chelsea, he always put all himself into it for this shirt. Diego is a good player, a good person, and now he's only focused on Chelsea and to play with us and continue to help us. For this reason, I am sure that if Diego starts, he will do everything he can to win."

If he starts. The scintilla of doubt was the only qualification Chelsea's manager Antonio Conte left in the air when he was questioned about Diego Costa's return at Stamford Bridge against Hull City this evening.

We will know at 4.30pm (half past midnight Singapore time) whether all is forgiven between the Blues and their star striker.

I think we can take it that the "back injury" many interpreted to be something going on in the back of Costa's mind is now resolved. The feeling around Chelsea's Cobham training base is that the lure of the Chinese yuan - millions and millions of it offered by Tianjin Quanjian - is on hold, at least until the end of this season.

Chelsea striker Diego Costa appears to have recovered sufficiently from his back problem to return to the Blues squad against Hull. But having been fluttering his eyelashes at China's Tianjin Quanjin, it remains to be seen if manager Antonio Conte will welcome the Spaniard straight into his starting XI. PHOTO: REUTERS

The bottom line is Chelsea wants to win back the Premier League title. And despite Marcos Alonso and Pedro Rodriguez coming up with the goals in last week's win at Leicester, the paramount source of the Blues' leadership in the table has been, and looks like continuing to be Costa.

But if your life depended upon one man to put the ball, and if necessary, any opposing defender into the net, it would be Diego da Silva Costa. 

Once he puts all of himself into the shirt he is unequivocally the most menacing, brooding, dependable scorer in the land.

Better than Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero?

It's subjective and perhaps depends upon the colour of your preferred shirt. But if your life depended upon one man to put the ball, and if necessary, any opposing defender into the net, it would be Diego da Silva Costa.

Born in Brazil, for hire to the extent that he changed his nationality to Spanish to play national team football, Costa is an old-fashioned street footballer/fighter.

He can do finesse, but he has no compunction in being brutally ugly if that suits the bill.

Costa calls his home the place where the next expansion in salary lies. His agent, the Portuguese financial minder Jorge Mendes, has steered him from Braga to Atletico Madrid to Chelsea with unerring returns for the shirt, regardless of colour.

He banged in 43 goals in 94 La Liga games for Atletico, and has beaten that ratio with 46 goals in 73 games in the Premier League. In all competitions, tonight's game will be Costa's 100th for Chelsea - and who among us thinks that Hull has the defence to keep him out for 90 minutes.

That's if Conte starts with his numero uno striker.

We know by now that the Italian is the arch pragmatist. He has shown, very quickly, that he could master and repair all the ill Jose Mourinho's imploded second coming at Chelsea left behind.

Conte's man-management could, I fancy, even make the rifts of Valencia go away, if ever Peter Lim could afford to hire him.

Conte is a winner. You can see it in the way he prowls and has minor explosions on the touchline. He also knows how to blend disparate players, how to manage their moods, how to draw the sting of a man like Costa who might want to throw in the shirt and double his wages on the other side of the world.

Diego Costa is a mercenary? How many of the modern players are not?

He knows (his agent will remind him lest he forgets) that the career is short, a club's allegiance is fleeting, and that for sure is the way of things at Chelsea where Roman Abramovich will pay full English wages, but not the new Chinese offerings to selected individuals.

Moreover, the Chinese messages are already mixed. The Super League, the football association, and even the government seem to be alarmed about the salaries put out by clubs, and quotas restricting the foreign mercenaries are already in play.

So, poor old Costa, and poor old Jorge Mendes, might just have to bite the bullet and accept that Chelsea can hold him to contract, at least until this season's Premier League title is settled.

"He missed only one game," Conte says. "And now he's ready to come back with us. I'm sure about his commitment, his behaviour, his will to fight with this team and to try, together, to fight until the end to try to win the title."

The message could not be clearer. The fans, according to Conte, would be wrong to boo Costa this evening, though Heaven knows, it would be water off a pretty tough duck's back if Blues supporters see that as their retribution for a clear indication that their best striker is marking time to his next stepping stone.

Who might they covet instead? Ibrahimovic is on his eighth, possibly his last, club with Manchester United just another stage for his nomadic career.

Aguero and his agent have just dined out with Pep Guardiola which suggests to some that Man City's chief target man is going nowhere. Others conclude the opposite, that Guardiola was telling Aguero it is up to him whether he goes or stays.

Kane is a Tottenham boy, not for sale and not minded to break up his wonderful partnership with Dele Alli, even if Mauricio Pochettino would countenance the sale of either.

I'm speculating, but if Abramovich has indicated to Diego Costa that he can go once this title chase is run, then I'd bet Chelsea's owner has charged the ubiquitous agent Mendes with finding a replacement.

Chelsea has plundered Atletico Madrid for strikers before, and the latest Spanish leaks suggest that if the London club cannot get Antoine Griezmann from Atletico (because Man United is leading that chase), the man the Blues want is Griezmann's team-mate, the Belgian Yannick Carrasco.

The Premiership, the Bundesliga (Bayern Munich), Paris (PSG), or China? The world is a striker's oyster, and contracts can hold them often for far less time than what is written on the contract.

Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub Ch227, tomorrow, 12.25am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Strikers for hire like Costa don't stay long'. Print Edition | Subscribe