It amounted to an unwelcome reminder of arguably one of the Premier League’s least popular players. El-Hadji Diouf established a reputation as a preposterous character. Even in retirement, his capacity to cause offence needlessly was illustrated last week when he accused Steven Gerrard of racism.
The Senegalese striker contrived to be named among Pele’s 125 best players ever, proving a great footballer is not automatically a great judge of a footballer. Jamie Carragher famously asserted Diouf was the last to be picked in training at Liverpool.
To watch the Senegalese in his latter years, as this observer had the misfortune to do too often, was to see someone who, on about three occasions a season, demonstrated his talent. More often, he seemed to think the purpose of football was to get opponents sent off. And sometimes, because subtlety was rarely his forte, his antics resulted in his own dismissal.
Diego Costa is a far better footballer than Diouf ever was and a much more accomplished goalscorer. Yet what cartoon villains have in common is an apparent belief that their side wins if the other side is reduced to 10 men.
In a manner of speaking, Costa was vindicated on Saturday. There was something darkly appropriate when Jose Mourinho described him as the man of the match. He was, in the sense that his provocative tactics paid dividends when Gabriel Paulista received a red card. Arsenal were holding Chelsea with 11 men. They went a goal down with 10 and two behind with nine.
Yet somewhere along the line, Costa’s priorities seem to have been distorted. His tallies for the season both consist of one: a solitary league goal scored and a player beating a premature exit after he changed the tone of a game.
Go back to the start of May and there are two in each column: it is more damning because the other sent-off player was his teammate Cesc Fabregas, whose bizarre exit at West Bromwich Albion came after Costa’s inflammatory approach backfired.
So while Mourinho claimed Arsenal lacked “emotional control” on Saturday, it is a moot point if his own charges all possess it. Certainly Gabriel was foolish to fall into Costa’s trap. Yet, while he can seem a master of slyness, is he, beneath the angry exterior, calm and calculating enough to guarantee his own continuing presence on the pitch? Or does he just get away with it?
The most startling statistic generated on Saturday came when it was revealed Costa has not been sent off since 2012. A seemingly charmless man has led a charmed life.
Certainly it amounts to a failure from the refereeing profession. Somehow Costa’s litany of stamps, elbows, flailing and swinging arms, grapples with opponents’ faces, barges, swipes, scratches, imaginary yellow cards, assorted other fouls and display of dissent have not resulted in a red card.
Most, admittedly, fall into the bracket of petulant, rather than violent, conduct, but so did the flick that brought Gabriel’s instant expulsion at Stamford Bridge and will mean he serves a three-match suspension.
Perhaps referees merit some sympathy, given how many of Costa’s offences take place off the ball, but an official who only spots and punishes one team’s crimes, as Mike Dean did on Saturday, is delivering an abject performance.
Certainly Costa’s modus operandi and comparatively clean disciplinary record — ridiculously, he did not officially commit one foul against Arsenal — amount to a cast-iron case for a panel with a more comprehensive remit to sit every week, examining video evidence and taking as much retrospective action as is necessary, regardless of the referees’ reports.
There are more than 20 cameras recording every game. Costa’s various transgressions are soon apparent to all bar those in a position of power. And, seemingly, Mourinho, who turns a blind eye.
On Monday the English Football Association charged Costa with violent conduct, while both Arsenal and Chelsea were charged with failing to control their players. Gabriel was charged for improper conduct.
It is a step in the right direction. If the appropriate sanctions are applied without fail every time, it would persuade Costa to go back to goal scoring. The agent provocateur has the skills to be an agent of destruction with a ball at his feet.
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