If Premier League football were a revenge-fuelled drama of the House of Cards variety, driven by unholy alliances and cliff-hanger switches in allegiance, there would be only one location Hollywood writers can place Chelsea striker Diego Costa before the end of the summer – Manchester United.
Seemingly lending relationship advice from his nine-year-old daughter, Antonio Conte last week took the unusual step of dumping his top scorer via text message, naively giving ammunition for the Spain forward to explain the situation to journalists whilst on international duty.
“My relationship with the coach has been bad this season. It is a shame, I have already forwarded the message to Chelsea people to decide.”
That could prove to be Costa’s last vengeful swipe at the club he’s fired to two Premier League titles in the three years since his arrival from Atletico Madrid, like the flailing arm of a heavyweight boxer as he tumbles down to the canvas during his ultimate moments of in-ring consciousness.
Indeed, revealing transfer plans always comes at a cost to the club in question; Costa’s revelation will likely not only shave a few million off his own price-tag, but potentially further elevate that of his successor, as Chelsea’s intentions to sell their star striker and sign a replacement before the summer deadline become public knowledge. To an extent, their counterparts now have the leverage around the negotiating table.
But if Costa’s lust for revenge on the club treating him like a gung-ho spook who has regressed from invaluable asset to expendable liability spans further than simply this summer, a shock move to Manchester United – linking up with another manager he fell out with at Stamford Bridge – would provide the perfect platform to do so.
Much like Costa and Conte, Costa and Jose Mourinho had a difficult relationship in west London. When firing on all cylinders, Mourinho simply couldn’t get enough of his £32million acquisition. But when results weren’t going Chelsea’s way, particularly during the mutinous horror show that was Mourinho’s final campaign in charge of the Blues, the awkwardness of their association truly came to light.
Yet, Mourinho and Costa always appeared aware of the understanding that they were both, for better or worse, warriors and winners. Their controversy was a consequence of their passion; their tribulations were a result of the pain defeat inflicted upon them. Kindred spirits, albeit ones who often found themselves fighting each other. The same can’t quite be said about Costa and Conte, who don’t seem to share that win-at-any-cost ethos to the same degree.
But perhaps more importantly, Mourinho is a pragmatist, the kind prepared to put personal issues aside for the sake of winning titles. Just take a look at Juan Mata; completely shut out by the Portuguese at Chelsea due to his style of play, but unquestionably one of the most important attacking players during Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford.
Of course, Mata and Costa are completely different characters who fell out with Mourinho for completely different reasons – it was more Mourinho falling out with the midfielder than Mata having any real choice in the matter.
But after releasing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and cooling his interest in Antoine Griezmann, the United boss desperately needs a centre-forward. And despite apparent hopes of disposing of him as quickly and quietly as possible, shipping him off to a foreign league where he’ll be largely forgotten about, Costa is still one of the best centre-forwards in the business – furthermore, one of the few who already understand and suit the way Mourinho wants his team to play.
No doubt, Costa comes with more than his fair share of drawbacks, his hot-headed streak being the most obvious. But Mourinho implores his centre-forwards to hold up the ball, move the team up the pitch and bring the midfield into the game – we’ve seen that pattern at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – and even when he’s not scoring regularly, Costa’s contributions in those senses are more often than not within the realms of world-class.
Equally, whereas mooted targets like Andrea Belotti and Alvaro Morata have shown potency and ability further afield, Costa has already proved himself in the Premier League. In fact, his credentials are even greater than that – he’s twice proved himself to be an English title-winning striker, finishing up as Chelsea’s top scorer in both instances. The only potential United signing who can hold a candle to him in that regard is Everton’s ludicrously expensive Romelu Lukaku.
Whereas Belotti, Morata and Lukaku all come with predictably inflated price-tags, many of the reasons why the Red Devils shouldn’t sign Costa are exactly what could make him a comparatively cheap addition.
After all, we’re talking about a 28-year-old with two terms left on his current contract, who has continually suffered from a long-term hamstring problem, possesses a pathetic disciplinary record and quickly resorts to fisticuffs when frustrated by poor form.
Furthermore, Costa’s made the world and his wife aware that Chelsea are actively looking to sell and although, in theory, a premium would be placed for a Premier League rival, the striker’s frosty relationship with Mourinho may well be what convinces the reigning champions to sanction a shock deal.
They clearly see Costa as a ticking time-bomb – so why not place in in the dressing room of one of your closest competitors? It’s the kind of double-bluff perfectly befitting the House of Cards analogy; a deal that seemingly suits all parties in one way or another, but will come back to bite someone eventually.
Perhaps that’s exactly what makes the idea of Costa moving to United so interesting. As well as adding yet another dynamic to Chelsea and United’s bi-season meetings, further elevating the volatile atmosphere Mourinho’s presence alone has caused, it would eventually prove to be a wise move by one party and a poor call from the other. Currently, the difference feels like it’s balancing on a knife edge.
Whether a tale of such controversy can take any place in reality remains to be seen. But for the neutrals, it’s those Hollywood-esque romanticised sub-plots that seem so perfectly contrived they could only have been thought up in a Californian coffee shop that make the Premier League so special. Mourinho is a man who likes drama; maybe he’ll be drawn in by the Costa revenge story as well.