Reborn Spain hitman Costa set to torment Italy
Reborn striker Costa now a key cog in Spain's machine
ITALY v SPAIN
(Tomorrow, 2.35am, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven)
Diego Costa walked off the pitch in Leon to a raucous reception, an unusually open and united display of affection by Spain's fans for a man they love to hate.
The 27-year-old striker had just ended a 23-month goal drought.
His two-goal performance, during Spain's 8-0 thumping of Liechtenstein in the opening match of their World Cup qualifying campaign last month, reflected a striker reborn.
The rejuvenated Chelsea striker now looks to restart his international career on a clean slate under a new coach.
He has flown out of the traps. His six goals for Chelsea in the Premier League from seven outings have propelled him to the top of the goal-scorers' chart.
It was also this flying start which convinced Spain coach Julen Lopetegui, who replaced Vicente del Bosque after Euro 2016, to pick him for his first competitive game in charge.
SHOW OF FAITH
Lopetegui was ready to disregard Costa's horrendous international record, and his show of faith was rewarded with the two-goal display against Liechtenstein.
He will be hoping that Costa once more rises to the occasion, when Spain travel to Turin for a World Cup Group G qualifier against Italy tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
After all, Lopetegui's fortunes are likely to be intertwined with Costa's success.
When del Bosque convinced Costa to switch his allegiance from Brazil to Spain three years ago, it was with the intention to plug a glaring hole in the team's system.
Spain found themselves lacking an established striker when age and injuries caught up with David Villa after the 2010 World Cup.
Costa, then firing on all cylinders for Atletico Madrid (27 goals in the league and eight goals in Europe), looked like the perfect candidate to spearhead La Roja's attack.
But the decision didn't go down well with the supporters, who began chanting "No eres Espanol" (you're not Spanish) from the stands.
Costa's poor start for his newly adopted country exacerbated problems.
It took him 10 matches to score his first goal for Spain, in a 4-0 win over Luxembourg, before the barren spell started all over again.
During the three years del Bosque had Costa under his wing, he neither managed to get the best out of the striker nor find a suitable alternative.
It didn't help that Costa's conversion from a Brazilian to a Spaniard coincided with Spain's dramatic decline.
He was vilified by the media and was the convenient scapegoat when Spain, then the defending champions, crashed out of the 2014 World Cup in the group stage.
He was left out of the Euro 2016 squad because of a hamstring injury, but he had also just ended a calamitous club season during which he scored 12 Premiership goals for Chelsea.
At that point, it looked like his international career was headed for the cesspool.
This season, Costa looks like a different beast. His sterling displays for Chelsea this term have drawn plenty of plaudits.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said that he detected a renewed "focus" in the "fighter".
Francesco Guidolin, at that time still Swansea's manager, said that Costa is "one of the best strikers in the world" after the player scored two goals against his side in a 2-2 draw last month.
As Lopetegui looks to rebuild fallen giants Spain, he will be hoping to get a huge helping hand from the man who previously seemed incapable of doing anything right in a La Roja top.
Three years of failed experiments later, Costa still looks like Spain's best bet to glory.
"Now, things are going my way," said a smiling Costa after his brace against Liechtenstein took his international tally to three goals.
Italy will do well to heed the warning.
They have the best players. All you need is a look at their squad list to tell you that. We need to be fast and clinical.
- Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci (above), on facing Spain