Chelsea centre-forward Diego Costa’s latest brush with the authorities in England lead to another chorus of criticism in Spain. But the Brazil-born player is more likely to miss out on La Roja’s squad for the Euro 2016 finals for footballing reasons.
Costa being sent off after appearing to bite of Everton’s Gareth Barry during their recent FA Cup quarter-final at Goodison Park was picked up almost immediately by the Spanish media.
Amid another round of stories about the former Atletico Madrid striker’s combustible past was a Marca online poll which saw 82% of the over 11,500 fans who answered saying they did not want him named in the next Spain squad.
AS editor Alfredo Relaño’s column the following day was headlined ‘Diego Costa gives Del Bosque a way out’ and called on the Spain coach not to pick Costa for their upcoming friendlies against Italy in Udine on Thursday March 24 and Romania in Cluj on Sunday March 27.
“Diego Costa lost the plot yesterday afternoon and it all kicked off,” Relaño wrote. “He spat at the ref's feet and went for a bite out of the neck of Everton's Gareth Barry. He was sent off, going utterly mental in the process. He's an outstanding striker but has some behavioural issues that don't seem to be diminishing with the passing of the years…. his misbehaviour has now gone beyond all tolerable limits.”
Relaño’s opinion was backed up by stats showing that Brazil-born Costa has scored just once in 10 caps since switching allegiance to Spain ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Regular fitness and discipline problems have limited his appearances over those two years.
Del Bosque has found himself defending the decision to keep calling up Costa, denying more than once that he was under any obligation to the player after persuading him to switch from the country of his birth. The veteran coach has however claimed he “did not like” seeing some of Costa’s aggressive on-pitch behaviour, such as the clash with Arsenal defender Gabriel last September.
Perhaps more worryingly for Spain’s fans, when selected Costa has generally not seemed a natural fit, with his bustling style clashing with the team’s passing philosophy. There’s also a feeling that the player himself feels he must be on his best behaviour - with just three bookings during his 10 caps. Whether this takes the edge of his game and / or makes him less confident on the pitch is a moot point.
Costa did start La Roja’s most recent international, the friendly with England last November, but he was withdrawn just past the hour mark with his side not having yet managed a shot on target. Spain almost immediately scored two quick goals to kill the game.
On Friday, Costa was left out of the latest squad, with Del Bosque characteristically fudging the issue by claiming it was for fitness not disciplinary reasons.
“[Costa’s] physical condition is not perfect, so we did not want to force it,” the veteran coach explained. “If he was fit he would have been picked. The situation the other day [with Barry] was not so serious - and we are not here to punish. Diego has been playing well these months, and we are still counting on him. There are still two months to go. On the disciplinary side - we would like of course for everyone to behave well.”
Another reason for sticking with Costa through the last two years is that Del Bosque has often been short of options up front since the careers of David Villa and Fernando Torres went into decline. Cesc Fabregas played as a ‘false nine’ as Euro 2012 was won, and the lack of any reliable traditional number nine was why Del Bosque was so keen to get Costa to switch ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
The striker cupboard is not so bare at the moment however. Alvaro Morata gave another reminder of his quality in Juventus’ unlucky Champions League exit to Bayern Munich last week. Paco Alcacer has also impressed despite all the problems at Gary Neville and Peter Lim’s Valencia.
Plus a new [or old] name has emerged over recent months. Athletic Bilbao centre-forward Aritz Aduriz, 35, has netted 31 times in 47 games already this season, far out-scoring any other Spaniard.
Aduriz won one his only cap back in October 2010, but looks likely to add to that now later this week.
“[Aduriz] is coming in with popular acclaim,” Del Bosque said on Friday. “He is scoring a lot of goals, a traditional centre-forward that everyone likes. He has been playing well for many years. He deserves it.”
It now looks quite likely that Morata will be the first choice number nine, with Alcacer and Aduriz as back up - especially if the veteran does well against either Italy or Romania this week. The Basque also provides a physical edge and penalty box sharpness, and without all Costa's extra baggage.
Respected Spanish pundit Julio Maldonado summed up the situation pretty well on the Al Primer Toque radio show last week.
“The coverage was unfair, as I read everywhere that he bit [Barry], but he did not bite him,” Maldonado said. “Having said that, of course, Costa should not do that. What happens is you know you could be left with just 10 players at any moment. And you must recognise that with Spain he has never really performed. If he scored 20 goals in 20 games, and bites someone, well you have to make a decision. But at the moment I doubt if [Del Bosque] will bring him [to the summer's Euros] as he has not fitted into the style of the team.”
It looks as though the English authorities are the least of Costa's problems at the moment.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan