Atletico Madrid’s home clash against Getafe, a mini-Madrid derby in itself, was to be overshadowed by everything else last weekend. Diego Costa had long completed his return to the club from Chelsea, spending plenty of time sat in the stands and watching on as Diego Simeone’s side sleepwalked their way through the early stages of La Liga at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Now, it was time for him to get back into the Spanish top-flight mix. Los Colchoneros sit in second place, but they have lacked personality, something which the Spain international can’t help but throw into the equation whenever he steps on the field - for better or worse.
“I focus on the good things Costa did,” Simeone explained, after Atleti closed out a 2-0 victory to start 2018 in the league in winning fashion. After all, to focus on the negative would be a surefire, one-way route to insanity. There is no logic to his striker's train of thought; only instinct, passion and a touch paper that's easily lit.
On the bright side, Costa followed on from scoring in the Copa del Rey by lashing home a lovely finish to sink Getafe’s hopes of an upset. Conversely, he got himself entrenched in an attritional battle with opposing central defender Juan Cala, and found himself booked once for petulance, and then a second time for climbing into the crowd to celebrate his first goal back in La Liga for Atleti. But Simeone was right, it was beyond that.
“Costa gives us pace, attacking threat and he transmits fear, he’s scary,” his boss continued post-match. But while Atleti have been crying out for a physical presence to help lead the line and take the burden off Antoine Griezmann, the bigger bonuses lie within the psychological realm. For months, Simeone’s men have looked a shadow of their former selves. Though their coach harks back to the old guard regularly, retaining a similar system after a failed evolution into a 4-3-3, the spirit of his successful Atleti got lost somewhere along the way.
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Perhaps Costa’s departure did far more harm than first envisaged. On a technical level, his sale was not a wounding blow, for there were question marks over whether he could offer a sufficiently clinical edge in front of goal, as well as whether he boasted the polished close control and clarity of thought to be a top striker. Outside of that, the 29-year-old forward is a talisman. He personifies everything that Simeone wants to see from his players and is an embodiment of his coach on the field.
He inspires more from his teammates, who defend one another and ultimately band together in the face of whoever visits the Wanda Metropolitano. Costa’s return will help to reinforce the siege mentality of ‘underdog’ Atleti, giving them the essence of years gone by that has escaped them this season. In recent months, Los Colchoneros have drifted, devoid of the character and edge they used to show on a game-by-game basis. Now they have something to cling to.
Griezmann has been asked to do far too much in his attacking role since Costa’s departure, and his return should free the Frenchman up to have less responsibility and therefore more freedom to affect proceedings in the final third. The Brazil-born striker can be the foil, allowing others to busily link up around him.
What the likes of Koke and Saul can lack in terms of personality at times, Costa can bridge the gap and shunt the entire unit towards a collective identity instead. Simeone’s men will battle for each other and band together; it just requires some underhand contributions from Costa to facilitate such scenarios.
Against Chelsea in the Champions League this season, Los Colchoneros lacked any kind of character or swagger. Despite a long unbeaten run in the Spanish top flight, their play lacked conviction, and big away wins were down to their opponents' faults more than their own strengths.
A 2-0 victory over Getafe showed a side of Atletico's personality that has been lacking for too long. Costa has been the catalyst, and the talismanic striker will ensure Simeone’s men fight tooth and nail to right the wrongs of what was an efficient but ultimately bland first half of the season.