Diego Costa returns to Atletico bearing high expectations
BARCELONA: Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone finally has his favorite striker back at the club.
Now expectations are high in the Spanish capital that Diego Costa can again make Atletico a title winner.
Costa helped the team win the 2013 Copa del Rey before topping that the following season with the Spanish league title — making Atletico the only team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid to win the competition in the last 13 years.
Costa also led Atletico to the first of two Champions League finals in the last four years, but he was forced to abandon the 2014 final early on due to injury and Atletico lost 4-1 in extra time to Madrid.
In the three years Costa was at Chelsea, Atletico only won the minor 2014 Spanish Super Cup.
Costa faces a challenge to win more silverware immediately. Atletico failed to advance from the Champions League group stage and, although it is second in the Spanish league, it trails leader Barcelona by nine points. Its best chances are in the Copa and Europa League.
"We were eliminated from the Champions League, which was bad luck, but we still have a lot to do this year and we are going to fight for everything we can achieve," Costa said at his presentation on Sunday before being greeted by more than 25,000 fans at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
His immediate goal will be to recover his full fitness after not playing since last season when he helped Chelsea win the English Premier League but fell out of favor with coach Antonio Conte.
Six months have passed since Costa played his last official match, scoring in a 2-1 win for Spain over Macedonia. He has been training hard with Atletico since the Spanish club agreed to a transfer fee reportedly worth 60 million euros ($72 million) in September.
"I am feeling a lot better than when I arrived," Costa said. "I have prepared well and I am anxious to play and do what I need to do, which is to help the team and score goals. I have been waiting a long time for this moment. I am tired of training, I want to play."
His first opportunity will likely come Wednesday when Atletico visits Lleida in the Copa del Rey's round-of-16. Next up is a league match against Getafe on Saturday.
Costa and fellow winter reinforcement Victor "Vitolo" Machin weren't allowed to play for Atletico until 2018 when the club's one-year ban on fielding new players expired. The ban was imposed by FIFA after the club broke rules regarding youth players.
Simeone is hoping that the 29-year-old Costa is still the same caliber as when he scored 20 goals to lead Chelsea to the EPL title.
The Brazilian-born striker will rejoin a team that maintains its pillars from 2014. Center back Diego Godin and left back Felipe Luis feature in defense, Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion and Gabi Fernandez are fixtures in midfield, and most importantly Simeone still stalks the sideline.
Costa's goals, physical play and "bad boy" attitude that rattles rivals are the perfect fit for Simeone's emphasis on hard work and a united team.
Atletico tried several times to find a replacement for Costa. But neither Mario Mandzukic nor Jackson Martinez panned out, and current striker Kevin Gameiro has only given Atletico goals in bursts.
Costa will slot in beside forward Antoine Griezmann, the team's most creative player and its top goal scorer in recent campaigns who is reportedly being pursued by other clubs, including Barcelona and Manchester United.
In theory, the two should make a deadly force.
"We have worked very hard to get Costa and Griezmann together. I hope we can enjoy them for a long time," Simeone said Saturday. "We have two forwards coming to the team and the competition is good for Atletico."
Atletico has also strengthened its attack with Vitolo, who is similar in his large build to Costa. Vitolo spent the first half of the season on loan at Las Palmas after Atletico lured him away from Sevilla in the offseason.
The additions of Costa and Vitolo may mean Atletico will look to move one or more of its forwards. Besides Gameiro, Atletico's attack also includes Fernando Torres, Yannick Carrasco, Angel Correa and Luciano Vietto.
Costa also has a lot to play for individually. His spot on Spain's World Cup squad is in jeopardy after he was dropped by coach Julen Lopetegui given his hiatus from football.
"If I start scoring goals and the team plays well, it will be easier for me to make Lopetegui's list," Costa said. "I am ready to give it my all and later the coach will decide."