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Sometimes a picture says it all.
Diego Costa, with full beard, has his fist clenched. He looks ravenous, his face locked in a savage grimace. Out of focus, his Atletico Madrid teammate Antoine Griezmann is running towards him to celebrate Costa’s goal, the opening score in a 5-2 win against Sevilla.
The score came in the 28th minute of the match. Costa pounced on Ever Banega—who had foolishly been given a rolled pass with his back to Costa by Sevilla’s goalkeeper Sergio Rico on the edge of the box. Costa dispossessed Benega, and slotted the ball beyond Rico to score. The goals came tumbling then, as Atletico raced into a 5-0 lead with Griezmann bagging a hat-trick, one of them thanks to a penalty the former Chelsea striker had won.
The photo of the manic Costa adorned the front of Monday’s edition of Marca. The headline: “He wants the league.”
The result is a huge statement of intent, especially given Sevilla’s ground, the Sanchez Pizjuan, is a graveyard for visiting teams. Sevilla’s city rivals, Real Betis, are the only team to win at the stadium in La Liga since November 2016. Atletico’s coach Diego Simeone pronounced the second half performance as “the best of the season”, per Mundo Deportivo. Simeone’s side—with Costa the embodiment of the Argentine’s fighting spirit on the pitch—now has Barcelona in its crosshairs.
Atletico have chipped away four points from Barca’s lead at the top of La Liga, with the Catalan side dropping points against Espanyol and Getafe during February. There is now seven points between the sides. Since returning from Chelsea to play in La Liga, and having sat out the first half of the season owing to a FIFA ban on Atletico registering players, Costa has galvanised the club. He has been his inimitable, insatiable self—scoring five goals in nine appearances. Nothing has changed since he spearheaded Atletico’s improbable title win in 2013-2014 with 27 goals.
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Costa is still a nuisance to play against—as well as the goals and the infectious pressing, the 29-year-old has been sent off and collected a couple of yellow cards along the way. Simeone is in his element with Costa at his disposal again. “He transmits fear,” Simeone purred about him after Costa’s first, goal-scoring game back in his side in January, per Mundo Deportivo.
“I think a couple of months have been enough to remind us that there is nobody more unsettling for opposition teams than Costa in this Atletico team,” says Fran Guillen, author of Diego Costa: The Art of War. “He generates chances for himself and for his teammates. He’s ideal for Simeone’s style of play.”
Costa is also an ideal foil for Griezmann. It’s no coincidence that he’s been on fire since Costa’s return, clocking nine goals and five assists in his last nine games for Atletico. “Griezmann is benefiting from a huge sporting yield with the arrival of Costa, which allows him to play in his natural position and takes away some vigilance from rival defenders,” says Guillen.
With a classic number 9 to play alongside, the Frenchman is free to roam further from goal where he is more dangerous. Griezmann’s first goal on Sunday night against Sevilla is a case in point. Gathering the ball from a half-clearance amongst a thicket of defenders, he took a couple of touches and rifled a shot off-balance into the top corner. It was a thing of beauty.
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Last summer, it seemed Griezmann was on the way out of the club although he eventually committed to the club for another season. He has, however, continued to send mixed messages about his future—and is regularly linked with a move to Barcelona in the Spanish press—which has irritated Atletico’s fanbase. He has been jeered at by his own fans at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium this season, turning his home games this season into “a permanent plebiscite,” according to El Pais journalist Ladislao J. Monino.
“The problem of Griezmann is Griezmann himself—his behaviour, his statements, saying that maybe he would leave,” says Monino. “Always he has been very ambiguous. That has affected the fans. They have been whistling him recently and this is a serious problem because Simeone knows he is an important player and he wants him to continue with the club, but I also know that Simeone doesn’t make exceptions for him. A short time ago, he sanctioned Griezmann for a trip he made to see an NBA match.”
Simeone has managed a difficult Griezmann situation well this season, given the Frenchman has been flip-flopping almost on a weekly basis. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster—his relationship with the fans this season,” says Euan McTear, author of Hijacking La Liga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoly on Spanish Football.
“At the start of the season, they weren’t very happy with him because he’d spent all summer angling for a move. He decided at the end he wouldn’t go because of the transfer ban. Then the first league game, he gets himself sent off by talking back to the referee, which was a bit stupid. But he then started scoring some goals so everything was well again.
“A few weeks ago, Atletico’s fans started whistling him in a game against Valencia. Atletico were winning 1-0. Instead of driving forward towards goal, he held up the ball, and moved the ball backwards, which was obviously Simeone’s instructions. That was the game plan. The fans started whistling him so he started gesturing back towards them.
“Every week, it changes—the narrative is that he’s fallen out with the fans; that he must be leaving in the summer, and then last week at the Wanda, all was nice and well, and he applauded the fans, so it’s, ‘oh, maybe he’s repaired some of those broken bridges and maybe he will stay’.
“There was a video released a couple of weeks ago on Instagram and he was in his car with his daughter and they were singing the Atleti hymn: ‘Atleti! Atleti!’ It was very cute. Everybody was loving him again. But a few days earlier, he’d been gesturing at the fans. It’s hard to tell with Griezmann and all of his antics. He takes two steps forward, and one back by doing something to damage the relationship again. He’s an outspoken person. His relationship with the fans at the end of the season might determine whether he stays or goes.”
It’s only a matter of time before “El Nino” Fernando Torres, a club icon, leaves Atletico. When pressed last week during a press conference as to whether Torres had a future with his boyhood club beyond his current contract—which expires in the summer—Simeone bristled. “No,” he said, per El Confidencial.
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Since Torres returned to the club in January 2015, Simeone has treated him coldly. It has been whispered that he’s jealous of his standing with Atletico’s fans. “Simeone never likes any player to stand out except himself,” says Monino. “It could be something like that. Whenever there has been any player whom all the attention is focused on, he doesn’t like it.”
Torres, who will turn 34 in March, has always struggled to nail down a starting position under Simeone. He has only started three league games this season. “Torres has never been given confidence by the trainer or an extended run in the team,” says Monino. “An example was when he scored twice for Atletico Madrid in his first match back against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in 2015 and the next match he was a sub. It’s hard to imagine, say, if Raul returned to Real Madrid and in his first match he scores two goals against Atletico Madrid, that in his next match he would be listed as a sub.”
McTear argues that Simeone has “humoured” Torres, and given him a sanctuary to wind down his career. “He’s simply not good enough anymore”, says McTear. It is unlikely Torres will be called upon against Barcelona on Sunday at the Camp Nou. Kevin Gameiro has hit a vein of form mid-season and will more likely be Simeone’s go-to-man from the bench up front. It’s a must-win game for Atletico who, as McTear points out, are only on track to finish with 88 points, which is shy of the 90+ points tally that La Liga champions have mustered for the last several seasons, including 100-point seasons in both 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.
Barca’s solidity stands in Atletico’s way, as title challengers, says Guillen: “It is a team perhaps not as brilliant as the one of Pep or with as much dynamite as that of the first season of Luis Enrique, but this team of Ernesto Valverde rarely loses a game. He has sacrificed preciousness for balance and reliability and it is very difficult to see them dropping points. And he has Messi, of course.”
Maybe Atletico’s card in the hole is Costa. Sunday will tell us more.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz