Heart Of Football

Unhappy Costa the real blue-chip nomad

In mid-May, Diego Costa was the jester at the Chelsea party. He burst into a press conference, yanked his manager away to the dressing room, and doused Antonio Conte with champagne.

A month later, Costa was telling the media that he had received a text message from his manager telling him he was no longer wanted at Stamford Bridge.

Not for the first time in his nomadic career, the Brazil-born, Spanish nationalised striker is of no fixed abode. Chelsea want to sell him, Costa wants to go back to Atletico Madrid, but neither the money nor Fifa rules make that possible - for the moment.

He is a disruptive influence at times, a game winner at others.

Ways and means will be found to get him out so that Chelsea can recycle the cash, quite likely on Romelu Lukaku.

Meanwhile, Arsenal, who haven't had a reliable central striker since Thierry Henry, are shopping in France.

The Gunners wanted Kylian Mbappe. They will probably settle instead for the Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette.

Lithe where Costa is a human battering ram, Lacazette has fast feet and a rapid eye for goal. For followers of the EPL, there is something of Jermain Defoe about him. 

Lacazette is 26. He's not the wunderkind that Mbappe is, and not by any stretch of imagination the big beast that Costa can be on his day.

Indeed, Lacazette is pretty much second choice for the France national team, behind a man Arsenal already possess, Olivier Giroud.

Second in blue, but if Arsenal pay the £44 million (S$77.5 million) price - plus added payments depending on set targets - Lyon are ready to offload.

"Alex had a good option with a club that is in his heart," said Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas. "If the club in his heart are able to match our demands, things will go well.

"If any player feels this club is not big enough for him, we will look to others who are just as strong."

Aulas is a shrewd businessman. He took ownership of Olympique Lyonnais 30 years ago when they were in financial difficulty, and Lacazette would be typical of those who have been made and matured by the club, ready for the market when the price is right.

The owner's harsh tone is for public consumption. He must have some affection, even gratitude, for the son of Guadeloupe immigrants and one who was born, bred, schooled and learned all that he knows with Lyon in Ligue 1.

In a way, Lacazette is the polar opposite to Costa.

Costa - christened Diego after Maradona - came through a hard school in Brazil. He would sell anything, even his nationality, for a hint of Spanish gold.

Lacazette has reached football middle age without moving anywhere from his home town. At seven, he was playing for Elan Sportif, so Olympique cannot claim to have discovered him.

Lithe where Costa is a human battering ram, Lacazette has fast feet and a rapid eye for goal. For followers of the EPL, there is something of Jermain Defoe about him.

Right-footed, but prepared to shoot with the left, he has composure and balance in and around the penalty box. He struck his 100th league goal for Lyon in his 203rd game at the end of last season.

Break down his statistics and they suggest a single-minded finisher whom Arsenal surely need. Last season he played 45 games in all competitions. He scored 37 goals. And, tellingly, he provided just five assists.

On that evidence, he doesn't look for anything but the white of the goal posts. And if the rumours are true and Alexis Sanchez is Manchester City-bound, goals are clearly Arsenal's pressing priority.

Not that Chelsea, or any other club, undervalue those.

If Costa goes, it is not on account of his finishing ability. His last goal of last season came in the FA Cup final against Arsenal.

And it was typical Costa. He showed himself for the ball just inside the penalty box, took a pass down on his chest, used his upper body strength to shrug off a defender, and belted it into the net with his right foot.

Arsenal, on that day, had the resources to come back and win the final. But one reason why Sanchez would leave (apart from money) is that he became disillusioned with Arsenal's lack of an out-and-out finisher in the Costa or even the Lacazette mould.

There is a connection to both these strikers and their destination. Atletico Madrid are the team Costa has his heart set on re-joining, and Atletico were the club that Lyon expected to sell Lacazette to.

When president Aulas spoke of a club "in his heart" he knew that Atletico was preparing to sell Antoine Griezmann to Manchester United.

Both deals were off once the Court of Arbitration rejected Atletico's appeal against a Fifa ban covering two transfer windows - last January and now the July-August window.

Real Madrid was similarly barred by Fifa, for the same offence of signing players under the age of 18 in breach of a European Union rule that minors must not be bought or sold between clubs more than 100km apart.

Real got off with a one-window ban on appeal. Atletico had no such luck or persuasion.

Hence the impasse. Lacazette might within the next week sign his heart away to London, not Madrid. Griezmann has already stated that he is staying with Atletico out of a sense of loyalty.

And Costa? A few months back, when he first quarrelled with Conte, his head seemed turned towards China.

Now, he insists (at least while on Spanish soil) he wants to go home to Atletico. There are two impediments to that: Atletico is offering way below Chelsea's asking price, and even if a deal is done, Costa would have to be mothballed until next January.

Chelsea could work out a loan to, say AC Milan, for six months. Or Costa could hang around, a brooding, nuisance factor at the Bridge until the Atletico punishment is served.

And a big clock is ticking: Costa wants to be Spain's centre forward for the 2018 World Cup Finals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Unhappy Costa the real blue-chip nomad'. Print Edition | Subscribe