Diego Costa returns to boost Atletico Madrid like he's never been away
It had been 1,320 days since Diego Costa's last appearance for Atletico Madrid, but it seemed like he had never really been away.
Following his €62 million return from Chelsea, there were few signs of rustiness despite spending the last seven months on the sidelines, including the first half of La Liga's season due to Atletico's FIFA-imposed transfer ban. And, just five minutes after entering Wednesday evening's Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg at third tier Lleida, Costa was back on the scoresheet -- as he threw himself to the ground at the near post and expertly turned home Juanfran Torres' right-wing cross to make it 3-0 in the 69th minute in an eventual 4-0 win.
Costa's most recent Atletico debut was a mini-show of what he brings to any team, with his goal scoring touch, bravery, directness, physicality and unique ability to unsettle defenders all immediately present.
For his goal, the Spain striker had shown bravery and desire to get to the ball ahead of marker Marc Trilles, with the Lleida defender's studs crashing into his right knee seconds after contact with the ball.
That led straight to an injury scare -- with Costa unable to celebrate as he lay in pain on the ground before pulling himself along the goal-line, where he received lengthy treatment from the Atletico physios. TV images soon showed stud marks and heavy bruising below his right knee.
Costa's last Atletico appearance was blighted by injury, when he lasted just nine minutes in the 2014 Champions League final defeat against Real Madrid due to a hamstring problem, but this time he limped back onto the pitch, tested the knee with a few tentative sprints, and was soon back chasing after long balls and closing down opposition defenders.
There was even time for a trademark battle with a rival. Costa received a whack to his back while wrestling for position with Trilles under a high ball, then sprung straight to his feet to get involved as a push and shove broke out between players on both teams.
"Costa's entrance lifted our spirits," a clearly delighted Atletico coach Diego Simeone told the postmatch news conference. "Diego gives us pace, strength, commitment... what we expect from him. He showed all that in those first five minutes."
Costa himself said afterwards: "It was important to feel like a player again. I couldn't ask for anything more from the game, making my debut again and being able to score. That made me even more happy."
Atletico pundits were also more than content with what they had seen. "With the return of Diego Costa we have recovered what we were missing, which was directness," Manuel Esteban told radio show El Larguero. "Diego opens up gaps, he always looks for spaces, goes for every ball, always. He was much better than expected. I must congratulate fitness coach El Profe [Ortega] as [Costa] has lost eight kilos and is fully fit already."
Costa's return is a clear positive for the team, but the effect on the other forwards -- most importantly previous attacking focal point Antoine Griezmann -- remains to be seen.
Griezmann was also a substitute on Wednesday night, and spent his 25 minutes on the pitch mostly on the right wing, from where he came inside and tried to link with the two frontmen: Costa and Kevin Gameiro. The France international then scored his team's final goal in a 4-0 win, a late free kick which hit the wall and wrong-footed the Lleida goalkeeper.
Journalist Miguel Martin Talavera told El Larguero that, with Costa in the side, he believes it is likely Griezmann will now get a more withdrawn role, which would mean less goals for the team's top scorer for the last three years but a better balance for the team overall.
"Griezmann will play deeper, get more involved, feel more comfortable," Talavera said. "It's true that if you move further from goal it will affect his goal scoring tally, but it will be good for the team. Simeone's idea is for Koke to play on the left, Vitolo on the right, with Costa and Griezmann up front."
Costa replaced Fernando Torres against Lleida, after the veteran had earlier scored his side's second goal from a Gameiro assist. Torres was then pictured looking very glum on the bench, with those around him much more enthused by the team's vibrant display.
Simeone also has Argentina international Angel Correa and Belgian winger Yannick Carrasco, while at least one attacker will leave the club this month, with Luciano Vietto close to a loan move to Valencia.
But he now has options. Costa still has much to prove, as does Vitolo who was also singled out for praise by his manager, who said: "They are two players with status, and I hope they can reach their best form as soon as possible. Luckily we have many games coming up, which makes it easier for us to give them playing time."
With a glut of games coming up across La Liga, Copa del Rey and Europa League, Atletico will need all the players at their disposal to give their best if they are to succeed. Their returning hero certainly made his case on Wednesday night.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan