Atletico Madrid have finally announced that Diego Costa is on the verge of rejoining the club three-plus years after he left for pastures new in England. It might not be the return of the prodigal son, but Costa’s homecoming is a significant step forward for Atleti and it represents a coup for a club that is more used to seeing players leave in their peak for Stamford Bridge than coming the other way.
The Brazil-born Spain international has not been without controversy during his time in England, but his goal-scoring record and performances in two title-winning sides cannot be disputed. His 52 goals in 89 Premier League games speaks for itself.
Granted, he fell out with Antonio Conte, and some of his histrionics tested the patience of fans and the media alike, but you are lying if you say he is anything other than a truly world-class footballer.
Moreover, Atleti are getting exactly what they need. In effect, he is the replacement the club never signed when he left in 2014.
The likes of Mario Mandzukic, Jackson Martinez, Kevin Gameiro and even Fernando Torres have had a go at filling Costa’s shoes, yet none have come close to replicating the kind of form that persuaded Chelsea to shell out £32 million for his services. It might well have taken a club record fee reported to be upwards of €50 million to get him back, but he is worth every cent.
He netted 43 goals in 94 La Liga appearances for Los Colchoneros, despite a stop-start beginning to his career in the Spanish capital because of injury and loan spells under various managers.
It was when Diego Simeone took over that he truly went up a level. Playing in a more advanced role, he netted 37 goals in 58 starts first in a No. 10 role then as a pure No. 9 — including 27 in the title-winning 2013-14 season in which he was arguably the best striker in the world. What’s more, Atleti know exactly what they are getting, unlike with those they have signed to try to replace him.
What are they getting? A warrior. A fighter. A player who will never say die. A striker who loves scoring goals, no matter how scrappy or untidy they are. Someone who will run through a brick wall for the side. Heck, he is a player who underwent the mythical horse placenta treatment just to try to be fit for a Champions League final.
His presence will improve this team no end. Los Rojiblancos have been profligate in their finishing in recent weeks. It likely means the end for Gameiro and Luciano Vietto, but given they have been pale imitations of top-level footballers leading to an over-reliance on Antoine Griezmann, it is worth it.
He will provide a foil the Frenchman, and fans in the Spanish capital are already salivating at the possibility of seeing the two play together.
Moreover, Costa knows Atletico. While he does not know Griezmann, world-class players can play together. But he knows the manager, his playing style, what he demands from his players and — most importantly — has shown he has what it takes to thrive under Simeone.
Despite leaving in 2014, Costa knows the mainstay of the Atletico side, which has remained at the club, and there will be no cultural or linguistic difficulties. He will be reunited with the likes of Gabi, Koke, Diego Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, who spoke of the squad’s excitement at the prospect of a reunion on Thursday.
“He’s one of the best three forwards in the world,” the one-time Chelsea full-back said. “He’s made history wherever he’s been and I have no doubt whatsoever that he’s coming to win, and fight for something big here.
“It’s important that a player of his stature chooses to come to Atleti. I’m sure he had lots of offers, but he’s coming here because this club doesn’t stop growing. It’s been great to get this piece of news today.”
It caps a fine week for Atleti, who remain unbeaten having secured six points and can make it nine from nine with Sevilla’s visit on Saturday. While the 28-year-old cannot play for Atleti until 2018 — meaning we will be denied the prospect of seeing him face Chelsea next week — his return will be worth the wait.
If the club can continue as they have been doing thus far and make it through to January still alive in the title race and through to the knockout stages in the Champions League, added to the arrivals of Costa and fellow new boy Vitolo, then they will fancy a tilt at silverware on both fronts.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.