The joke was made, and we all laughed, but there was truth to it too. Atlético Madrid had replaced Diego Costa with, well, Diego Costa. Three and a half years after he was whisked off to London to play with Chelsea as part of a mini-exodus, Costa has re-signed for Atlético — and with that, he is back “home”.
Atlético made several efforts to replace Costa with someone else before they gave up and accepted that he was the one and only player who could do the job Diego Simeone required from his main striker. These efforts spanned several leagues and cost a lot of money but inevitably came full circle. Jackson Martínez arrived from Portugal, Mario Mandžukić jetted in from Munich, Luciano Vietto was taken off Villarreal’s hands, Fernando Torres was signed as someone who understood what the club needed and Kévin Gameiro was cherry picked from Sevilla to bring some of what Costa brought. But none of them brought everything that was required.
The thinking behind those signings was solid, and it evolved with every failure. It evolved based on what Atlético thought Costa brought to the team and how he needed replacing. Mandžukić had all of the similar psychological traits that Costa had. He could start a fight in a convent — and he fought and bled for the cause, too. He could be the focal point of an attack crying out for a focal point.
Jackson didn’t quite have that mentality, but he was strong, relatively quick and had a great eye for goal. He was thought to be the answer and matched up best with what Costa did. But as it turned out, he didn’t have enough personality, or enough of a mean streak and failed to stamp his authority at the position; he faded away within six months.
Vietto was brought in after an excellent season with Villarreal and brought pace and the ability to counter-attack just like Costa. He wasn’t physical enough either, and failed to will his personality onto the team. Much like Gameiro, who has similar pace and deceptive strength but is missing that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.
Torres too was seen as a player who Simeone could get through to, would fight for the cause, had an eye for goal and could counter. Alas, it was also not to be; he simply no longer has what used to make him so special.
The thing is, unless Atlético were allowed to play any combination of the three players he recruited at the same time, they were never going to replace what Costa brings to Atlético. He’s as mean as a junkyard dog. He has pace and a willingness to use it that won Chelsea a Premier League, and has an eye for goal that would make Ian Rush take notice. He also makes his teammates better, takes the attention off the other attackers around him, winds up opponents to within an inch of bursting blood vessels and he loves Atleti, Simeone, Madrid and LaLiga.
And finally, Costa brings Atlético and rojiblanco fans back to the zeitgeist — to a time when anything was possible for the club, a time when a sense of invincibility reigned and a time that was taken away too soon after toppling Real Madrid and Barcelona at Spanish football’s summit. Costa might not score 30 goals but he brings with him a feeling that Atlético can compete once again with the big boys.
And if it turns out they can’t, at least they’ll have gone down swinging.