Diego Costa proved himself a master of the dark arts for Chelsea, while Kurt Zouma justified Jose Mourinho’s faith in him against Arsenal.
Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubting Costa knows how to get under the skin of his opponents – and he proved it to great effect in the 2-0 win over the nine-man Gunners on Saturday.
A swing of the arm at Laurent Koscielny, a chest charge on Gabriel, how the Chelsea man stayed on the field bemused most, and BT Sports referee analyst Howard Webb quite rightly called the striker a “lucky, lucky boy” to still be on the field. Twitter’s reaction to the fracas also suggested a nationwide disbelief that Costa had somehow avoided red.
‘Anti football’, ‘dirty tactics’ – call it what you want – Costa’s actions in getting Gabriel sent off were as key to this victory as Zouma’s opening goal – which makes Gabriel more the fool for falling into his little trap.
Referee Mike Dean had already done his best to keep the players on the field by only cautioning both Gabriel and Costa for their parts in the skirmish, but he was left with little choice but to show the Gunners centre-half a red card after his petulant kick out at his nemesis.
Whether pre-planned or simply opportunist, Costa’s ‘ability’ to earn his team an advantage proved crucial as a Gabriel-less defence left an unmarked Zouma free to head Chelsea into a 52nd-minute lead.
Costa could yet face retrospective action for his part in the clashes, but that will come as little sympathy to Arsene Wenger’s side.
“He looks like the villain in a Spaghetti Western,” commentator Ian Darke said of Costa. Whether referring to his looks, or simply his actions on the field, on today’s evidence it’s certainly hard to argue against him.
But it wasn’t just Costa’s actions that grabbed the headlines, the performance of Zouma – preferred in defence to John Terry – also played a key role in helping Chelsea wrestle victory.
From an expertly-timed tackle to prevent the pacey Theo Walcott bursting through on goal, to popping up at the other end to head home the vital winner, Zouma certainly justified Mourinho’s decision to select him ahead of John Terry.
Mourinho had gone to great lengths ahead of the game to deny talk of a rift with his men.
“I have total confidence in John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic. They remain my men. [With regards Terry]… being on the bench one game doesn’t change anything.
“I have no criticism about the performances of Branislav. I won’t separate individuals from team displays. People can criticise me for my decisions, but not for my relationship with my players. I have zero problems.”
The master of the siege mentality – and as if to prove the point – the Portuguese tactician stuck to his guns by not just resisting the urge to axe Ivanovic, but by also naming him captain for the day against the Gunners.
I’ve gone to great lengths to discuss how a defensive reshuffle is hugely overdue at Chelsea, but a clean sheet on the day – and three points to boot – proves Mourinho was probably right to stick by Ivanovic.
Tasked with marking Alexis Sanchez, the Serbian can take satisfaction at limiting the Chilean’s influence against the Blues.
Redemption for Ivanovic? Perhaps not yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
However, it will be the display of Zouma which will most have pleased his manager. The France defender – a £12million signing from St Etienne in January 2014 – has emerged as Chelsea’s most consistent defensive performer this term – and is probably the main reason why Terry is only likely to play a bit-part role this season. The king is dead, long live the king.
Whilst the three points will certainly delight Mourinho, there still remains issues for the Blues boss to address. Improved performances from the “Premier League’s best player” Eden Hazard, as well as Cesc Fabregas, will have helped his mood, however.
Hazard, last season’s Player of the Year, is still to hit the heights of last season – but he showed he’s at least on the right path after arguably his best display this season; the Belgian playmaker sealing the victory after seeing his 91st-minute strike deflect in off Calum Chambers.
For now though, Mourinho can take delight in their scrappy victory – the manner of which will matter little to all connected to Chelsea as they took the tentative first steps in putting their turbulent start to the season behind them.
By James Marshment