Chelsea’s Diego Costa back to playing on the edge, just like he needs to

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LONDON — Diego Costa probably should have been sent off for Chelsea against West Ham United on Monday but instead he stayed on the pitch and became the hero, scoring the game-winner late on in Antonio Conte’s first Premier League game in charge of the Blues.

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The Spanish international striker, 27, has been the subject of incessant transfer speculation over the summer with reports linking him with a move back to Atletico Madrid plus Michy Batshuayi arriving for $40 million and talk of Romelu Lukaku coming back to Chelsea for over $80 million continuing.

When Costa plays like he did on Monday, there’s no way Chelsea should ever consider getting rid of him. In every sport we can think of players who need the smack talk from opponents, opposition fans and pundits to get going and produce their best. Costa is no different and looked reinvigorated by a summer of doubt surrounding his future at Chelsea.

He looked sharp, chased lost causes and even if plenty of his flicks and tricks didn’t come off, he kept trying them and eventually his individual quality was the difference between the two teams.

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As we’ve seen many times before, Costa’s temperament is questionable at best. After Oscar went down in the box in the first half he raced 20-yards towards referee Anthony Taylor like a madman. He was rightly booked under the new set of rules being dished out by the PGMOL as they try and curtail poor player behavior towards officials. Costa probably should’ve got a second yellow for catching West Ham’s goalkeeper Adrian above his ankle in a late, lunging tackle late on.

Even if he crosses the line between what is acceptable and what’s not, Costa needs to play on the edge. Otherwise, he’s average.

We saw that for most of last season as he battled back from injury, lost form and seemed to be holding himself back and pulling up the handbrake when going into challenges and making a general nuisance of himself. So often in 2015-16 he seemed to be shrugging his shoulders and sulking on the pitch as retrospective bans were handed to him and he felt like the victim. He scored 12 times in 28 PL appearances and there’s no surprise his dip in form coincided with Chelsea’s 10th place finish just a season after he played a pivotal role in their title win.

Speaking after the game, Conte didn’t think Costa deserved a second yellow for the challenge on Adrian and, somewhat surprisingly, neither did Slaven Bilic, West Ham’s manager. 

Conte also revealed that he enjoys seeing Costa play on the edge and perhaps the passionate Italian coach is just the right man to get the best out of the former Atletico Madrid powerhouse.

“On the bench, I must be honest, Diego tried to put pressure on Adrian and before he had the contact he stopped. Then for this reason the referee took the right decision,” Conte said. “We know Diego. He is a passionate man and he puts pressure on everything he does. If he shots, if he runs, for everything he puts passion. “

Costa treads a fine line between thuggery and brilliance.

When the latter shines through he is clinical, as we saw in his lethal debut season at Chelsea when he scored 20 goals in 26 PL games to lead them to the title.

Chelsea will be hoping this season that Costa can keep the fire in his belly but exorcise the demons which still haunt his mind from time to time.