A player’s reputation is often enhanced during their absence. The coach can explain away poor results by claiming things would have been different with a fully fit squad, supporters can dream about what might have been possible with a full range of resources while others can highlight a team’s overreliance on a single component.
Diego Costa’s three-match ban has certainly shown just how meagre Chelsea’s options are up top. The 27-year-old might not have been at his buccaneering best this campaign but his ineligibility has still been felt.
Looking at the statistics, Costa’s contribution appears modest as he’s scored just twice so far this season. Stats do not tell the whole story, though. He was the chief protagonist in the 2-0 home win over Arsenal, a hugely positive result that contrasts starkly against a largely negative background at present. As well as his much publicised spat with Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny, for which the Chelsea striker was ultimately suspended, he also stretched the Gunners’ defence with his runs in behind and his incredible work rate was matched only by teammate Oscar.
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Even more encouraging was Costa’s display against Porto, in which he further resembled the ruthless assassin of last season. His hold up play was exceptional and he looked like opening up the hosts’ defence every time he received the ball. The dipping shot that struck the underside of the bar deserved so much more and Chelsea ultimately lost 2-1.
As the season has progressed, Costa’s form has been on a steady incline which meant that the Football Association’s decision to suspend could not have come at a worse time. Radamel Falcao and Loic Remy have stepped into the breach but neither has been able to sufficiently fill the void. The duo have fallen short of making a similar impact to the man they have replaced. Two goals between them in all competitions this season may reflect their lack of game time, though their meek all-round contribution has been concerning.
Falcao’s energy and excellent movement is constantly undermined by his inability to control the ball and his propensity to be buffeted around by imposing defenders. While the Colombian would surely benefit from an extended run in the side to establish some rhythm, Chelsea’s current predicament means they cannot afford to carry a passenger up front until he finds his feet.
Remy, meanwhile, appears disinterested, perhaps as a result of seemingly falling behind Falcao in the pecking order despite some crucial winning goals in the second half of last season’s title-winning campaign. There was a crisp strike against Walsall in the Capital One Cup, but otherwise he has not been able to bolster his claim for greater involvement.
It means there is even more pressure on Chelsea to manage their star striker properly. The lack of viable alternatives means Costa needs to play as many games as possible. The complication is that ongoing concerns about the state of his hamstrings dictate that periods of rest are vital to ensure that he is always available when the team really needs him.
Naturally, some of the responsibility for being selectable falls upon the Spain international himself. Although his three-match ban might have been harsh when taking into context Gabriel’s lack of punishment either for his red card against Chelsea or his elbow on Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovic a week earlier.
Costa’s aggression is a significant part of his game but he needs to make sure that he walks the line carefully and avoids needless suspensions. Chelsea simply cannot afford to be without their main man.
Whether he finds the net or not, Costa is invaluable to the club, especially at this difficult time. With confidence brittle and many of last season’s stars abdicating responsibility, he is one man that can lead by example.
Despite the presence of senior players such as John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesc Fabregas, there has been an alarming leadership vacuum on the field. Costa’s relentless desire to win at all costs is just what the team needs right now. He is an example to follow; a man to lead them into the heat of the battle and emerge victorious on the other side.
By his own admission, he returned for preseason training out of shape, something that might not suggest the right level of professionalism. His acceptance of the fact, however, is to his credit especially as he has refused the chance to blame anyone else for his sluggish start. He has not been the only player to defend Jose Mourinho but has been one of the few to actually replicate that loyalty on the pitch.
From a Chelsea perspective, his omission from the Spain squad for this latest round of international fixtures is hugely welcome. A reduction in workload can only benefit his fragile hamstrings while a fortnight of training in London should make him sharper.
With just one appearance in the last month, Costa’s return to the team cannot come soon enough. No doubt he will be straining at the leash ahead of the game and will be as hungry as ever to get back into the action. Aston Villa might just feel Costa’s wrath at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.