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Hot-blooded Costa takes his revenge for Chelsea against Spurs – and serves it cold

The Guardian logo The Guardian 27-11-2016 Barney Ronay at Stamford Bridge
Diego Costa was a constant menace to Tottenham’s defence, and was pivotal in setting up Victor Moses’s winner at Stamford Bridge. © CameraSport via Getty Images Diego Costa was a constant menace to Tottenham’s defence, and was pivotal in setting up Victor Moses’s winner at Stamford Bridge.

So much for the battle of The Bridge. This was a more controlled kind of warfare. Not to mention a more controlled, cold-blooded kind of Diego Costa, who led by stealth from the front as Chelsea came from one down to beat Tottenham 2-1 in a thrilling, high tempo match.

So often at times like these Costa has found himself at the centre of a kind of José-flavoured theatre of hate. Here he took his revenge served cold. In April Chelsea’s centre forward had his eye gouged by Moussa Dembélé in a match that simmered and spat before ending in authentic unbound rage.

If that was a fairly mind-bending collective meltdown, the role of Chelsea’s chief provocateur still bears re-examination. Perhaps the greatest trick Costa ever pulled was persuading Mark Clattenburg not to book him in a match where 12 yellow cards were shown, with Costa involved in at least five of then, and where he often seemed to play not on the edge or over the edge but with no real idea the edge even existed in the first place.

But then this is the amazing thing about Costa. Despite looking like he could be sent off in the first five minutes of pretty much every game he ever plays, he is yet to receive a red card in England, which tells you everything about his expertise in twanging only the right buttons, but winding his head in just as the train zips past.

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There has been less of that under Antonio Conte. Here Costa’s key contribution wasn’t a kidney jab or an armpit pinch or anything from the Bad Diego range. Instead he waited and simmered as Tottenham suffocated Chelsea in the first half, asserting the physical strength of that bulked up central rump, and looking like a team in the process of applying a cold, firm choke-hold on an occasion that got away from them in April.

Costa had already begun to wrestle his way into this game by half time. On 51 minutes he finally struck, producing a supreme piece of creative centre forward play to present Victor Moses with the chance to put Chelsea ahead. He has always been surprisingly quick in possession, scooting the ball along with his toe like a man very deftly punting a tin can along the pavement. Here he pulled to the left touchline, dipped and slowed and suddenly spurted off past his old pal Dembélé to the goal-line, cutting the ball back for Moses to finish via a deflection off Jan Vertonghen, who was unable to clear the ball on the goalline.

Costa has a habit of mugging defences, often in a semi-literal sense, but this was a controlled piece of leadership from the front. It always seemed likely Chelsea would need something like it. On a cold, still evening in west London there was a deep, murky roar for Costa’s name before kick off, although not before Stamford Bridge had spent 10 minutes being bathed in smoke, spotlights and carpet salesman convention-style inspirational music, just in case anyone in the ground hadn’t realised this was an appropriate moment to feel excitement.

Costa’s first act was to tumble under Vertonghen’s challenge and then leap up clutching his face, already gripped with outrage, agony, fever.

With some people there is no such thing as the last straw. The first straw is the last straw. Before long Spurs were bossing the centre of the pitch, Dembélé twice walking through challenges from Eden Hazard and Pedro.

Cristian Eriksen’s opening goal had its roots in a moment of bodged retaliation. As Dele Alli carried the ball forwards David Luiz came barrelling out of defence like a man startled out of a slumber. He fell over. The ball ran to Eriksen, whose fierce left-footed shot was so sublimely executed there was the tiniest gulp, a shutter-frame of silence around the ground as it stretched the net and bounced down, followed by a huge roar from the far end.

Costa seized the ball and placed it on the centre spot. Before long he was being upended again by Eric Dier, springing up, fists clenched, and swaggering about in that familiar haemorrhoidal Gaucho style. In a first half that saw him win no aerial duels, have no shots and complete a total of six passes, Costa just kept on running. He overhit a cross. He punched the air and gestured vaguely at some imagined injustice.

The difference with this Chelsea is the breadth of threat. You can shut Costa down, but under Conte they can strike from other angles. Previously dormant parts have begun to sing. In the current run of wins eight players have scored. One of them, Pedro, produced a stunning moment to level the game before half-time, pirouetting with wonderful balance and curling a thrilling shot beyond Hugo Lloris into the top corner.

At times after Moses’s goal Chelsea held on in the clinches. Costa missed an easy chance at the end. But this was still an exhilarating seventh straight win, helped by N’Golo Kanté’s increasing influence in the middle and Pedro’s speed and purpose, and led from the front by new, increasingly regal Costa, who has now had a hand in more goals than any other player in the Premier League, and whose craft rather than his fire was key here.

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