Costa’s sizzling return reignites Atletico Madrid

Costa’s sizzling return reignites Atletico Madrid

MADRID – Agence France-Presse
Costa’s sizzling return reignites Atletico Madrid

Diego Costa’s return to Atletico Madrid began in typically explosive fashion on Jan. 3 night, and his second spell in La Liga has raised hopes that his new team might challenge runaway leader Barcelona.

Costa swept home his first Atletico goal since leaving the club for Chelsea in 2014 just five minutes into his first appearance since May, scoring Atletico’s third in a 4-0 hammering of third-tier Lleida Esportiu in the Copa Del Rey and showing the goalscoring prowess that Diego Simeone’s side have lacked all season.

Costa came on as a 64th minute sub on Jan. 3 and almost immediately put his foot where it hurts to score, beating Lleida center-back Marc Trilles to Juanfran’s drilled cross and having his shin stamped on by the defending in the process.

“He’d put his foot into the blades of a fan,” said teammate Vitolo.

Costa showed the other, darker side to his game soon after deciding that the knock to the shin was nothing serious, charging back onto the pitch and getting embroiled in a row with Jorge Felix for which he was lucky not to be booked.

“In a way he never left, despite having a very good spell at Chelsea,” said goalkeeper Miguel Anguel Moya, who stood in for Jan Oblak at Lleida.

Atletico, which hosts Getafe on Jan. 6, is second in La Liga having lost only once all season but is nine points behind Ernesto Valverde’s team, on 36 points after drawing six of its 17 league fixtures, more than any team in the top half of the table.

It remains as dogged and as hard to beat as ever -- just eight goals conceded and one defeat in 17 league games is a testament to that -- but the team has scored only 25.

That’s 20 fewer than Barça and a paltry total compared to third-placed Valencia, which has rattled in 36 and is two points behind Atletico.

The team’s top scorer is Antoine Griezmann, who has improved after a slow start to the season and scored the fourth with a deflected free-kick on Jan. 3 but has only scored five times in the league.

Jan. 6’s match is just the sort of match Atletico have faltered at throughout this season.

As well as the six league draws against the middling likes of Girona and Leganes, four in the Champions League -- including two with Azerbaijani minnow Qarabag -- cost the team qualification from a group many expected it to comfortably get through ahead of eventual group winner Roma.

Its first league defeat of the season came at Espanyol before the Christmas break, a 1-0 loss that came thanks to shot shy striker Sergio Garcia’s first goal of the season two minutes before the end and highlighted the how blunt Atletico can look going forward against weak opposition.

Atletico hasn’t won La Liga since Costa left for London, where he won two Premier League titles in three years straight after rifling the Madrid club to its 10th league championship with 27 goals.

Real Madrid is way back in fourth, five behind Atletico as it prepares to travel to Celta Vigo, which has held Barça to two recent draws -- 2-2 at the Camp Nou in the league last month and 1-1 in the cup on Jan. 4