Diego Costa proves you can't go home
Background image: Alexdevil, CC by 2.0
Diego Costa fought hard to return to Atletico Madrid. When he won that battle in January 2018, most expected the Spaniard would regain his best form. It hasn't happened.
Costa courted controversy during his brilliant spell in England as a fundamental figurehead in two Premier League titles for Chelsea. When he fell out with Antonio Conte, the Brazilian-born Spanish international waited six months for Atleti's transfer ban to expire, so strong was his passion for the club. Now, that love is a millstone around the Rojiblancos' neck. Costa no longer terrorises defenders. A rash of injuries perpetuates an extended run of poor form. Approaching 50 appearances in his second go-round, he averages a goal every five games.
At Stamford Bridge, he thrived on a constant supply of service from the likes of Cesc Fabregas and David Luiz. Eden Hazard's whereabouts kept defenders from focussing on the centre-forward. While scoring gave the ‘Guv’nor’ cult status at Stamford Bridge, his all-round play was lauded by fans and pundits alike. By no means a traditional target man, headed goals were infrequent at best. Instead, his underrated passing ability and powerful frame made him a headache to defend. His gamesmanship tended to unsettle opponents far more than it drew referees' ire in the bargain.
Costa’s fitness took an irreversible hit while he sat on the sidelines, waging a personal detente with Antonio Conte and waiting for Atleti's ban to lift. Even in his heyday, he missed 25 Premier League matches over three seasons due to injuries and suspensions. Now, his absences are not always due to injury or the official's wrath. They're on him. His performances are erratic at best. The snarling, tiger’s fangs snap at thin air. Central defenders are now too strong and fast to fall prey to him. The desire remains and sparks him into life on rare occasions, particularly against the ancient enemy, Real Madrid. He scored a stunning hattrick against a lack-lustre Merengues squad in pre-season but, with Zinedine Zidane's side much-improved, Diego Simeone is yet to trust him against the city rivals in meaningful play.
At 31, Costa is not getting younger or fitter. Injuries mount. Still young enough that he should be thriving in the peak of his powers, the inevitable decline arrived early. These days, he’s more famous for clownish behaviour off the pitch.
Costa always was an interesting character. He described his first day at Stamford Bridge as "I go to war; you come with me." Now, though, the antics are an unwelcome distraction.
Costa's return to the Metropolitano should have been the coup of the season. Atleti paid £50 million to bring back their talisman, the man who drove them to their only Liga title in the new millennium. In his final Chelsea season, he contributed 27 league goals and always provided a platform for Chelsea to attack. The transition from Antonio Conte’s counter-attacking team to Diego Simone’s robust, defensively mobile unit seemed easy.
The reality was very different. A lack of fitness in his first year left Antoine Griezmann as the key threat that spring. Costa was second fiddle. When Griezmann departed to Barcelona, Alvaro Morata emerged as Simeone's first-choice number nine with talented teenager Joao Felix in support. It’s ironic that a striker who struggled so mightily at the Bridge displaced one who will forever be remembered fondly in SW6. The biggest difference? Atletico’s functional midfield lacks creativity. There’s no player in the squad with Cesc, Hazard or David Luiz's vision and passing ability.
Can Costa ever regain the incredible form that saw him strike fear in Premier League defences every single week? It’s unlikely. Instead, Atletico Madrid faces a tough choice. Placate the notoriously demanding Costa by integrating him back into the matchday squad and risk disrupting the excellent form of Alvaro Morata or cut their losses on a signing who promised much but delivered little. It’s a difficult situation for Diego Simone. The Argentine played a huge part in engineering Costa's return but is now under pressure to produce Los Colchoneros' new generation.
Costa's injury nixed any chance of a January move. A return to Chelsea isn't feasible. Tammy Abraham fills the Guv'nor's indomitable shoes. Costa will flat-out refuse to play for another Spanish club and he’s not keen to relocate from the Spanish capital he loves so much.
In reality, it seems that the striker will play out his days in Spain, making scattergun appearances, never quite able to recapture that legendary peak that made him a cult figure in Premier League history. It's a sad end for a striker who in his prime was utterly unplayable.