After nearly eight months out of action, Diego Costa might have been expected to start slowly in his second stint with Atlético Madrid. But that is not what Diego Costa does. Never far from the headlines, in three appearances Costa has two goals, an injury scare, and a red card to his name. The Spanish international’s return comes at an important time for the club—goals have been a scarce commodity for Atlético this season. An early exit from the Champions League, an abundance of draws in La Liga, and the potential departure of their leading scorer make Costa’s return incredibly timely.
Atlético getting what they bargained for
Diego Costa takes a lot of flack for his style of play, some justified, some not. However, his willingness to compete cannot be called into question. Diego Simeone demands total commitment from his players. If Diego Godín and Gabi are the quintessential Simeone defender and midfielder, Costa is the essence of a Simeone forward. He is powerful, happy to put himself about, unafraid of confrontation, and never willing to let a defense rest. His first few appearances since returning indicated Costa still possesses these qualities.
A mere five minutes after coming on against Lleida Esportiu in the first leg of their Copa del Rey round of 16 tie, Costa was back on the score sheet for his old club. Not only had he made his mark in short order, but he took a defender’s studs in the shin for his trouble. After the brief injury scare—injuries an all too common occurrence during his career—Costa trotted back on to see out the rest of the match. His first league match back at the club was even more typical. In a period of six minutes in the second half, Costa earned a yellow card for elbowing an opponent, scored a goal, and received a second yellow for jumping into the crowd to celebrate. In his third outing, Costa was more subdued, still managing to set up a goal for Yannick Carrasco after a signature Atlético counterattack.
A man for all seasons
After his departure for Chelsea in 2014, Atlético never adequately filled the void left by Costa. Antoine Griezmann joined from Real Sociedad the same summer, but Simeone prefers a two forward system, and none of Costa’s successors fit the mold. Griezmann plays best in behind the central striker, but the Frenchman never reached his full potential paired with Mario Mandzukic, Jackson Martínez, or Kevin Gameiro, among others.
Few players can lead the line as well as Costa. His size, strength, tenacity, and eye for goal make a nuisance for any defense. In his three seasons at Chelsea, during which he played primarily as a lone forward, Costa averaged just under a goal every other game. But he has shown he can play effectively as part of a front two as well. In his last season with Falcao before the Colombian left Atlético, the pair combined for 54 goals in all competitions. The prospect of a fruitful partnership with Griezmann must have Atleti supporters eager for the second half of the season.
What now for Atlético?
With the season only half over, it would be hard to call Atlético’s 2017-18 campaign a failure. But dropping down to the Europa League after a disappointing showing in the Champions League group stage, and a nine-point gap to La Liga leaders Barcelona, could not have been among their plans for this year. A dearth of goals is the chief culprit for the club’s struggles. While Los Colchoneros went undefeated in their first 16 league matches, six were draws, and the club have managed a goal or less in 11 of their 18 matches this season. Their paltry five goal haul from six Champions League group stage matches underscores the point.
All is not lost though. Despite trailing Barca, Atlético are positioned well in the league, and nine points is not an insurmountable advantage. While likely to qualify for next season’s Champions League via the league, the club must be among the favorites to win this year’s Europa League, should Simeone choose to prioritize the competition. The club are still alive in the Copa del Rey as well. What will be most interesting to watch in the second half of the season is what impact Costa’s return will have. How he fits in at his old club, how he partners with Griezmann, and how Simeone manages him will go a long way to determining Atlético’s fortunes going forward.