Barcelona v Atletico Madrid: Diego Costa gives Atletico the firepower to match Barcelona's Lionel Messi

Madrid seek vital edge from striker in all-Spanish Champions League duel

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The Independent Football

The question of which player on the opposing side you would prefer to have playing in your team does not usually provoke a very open response, especially on the eve of a big Champions League game, but Dani Alves broke with protocol last night and just blurted out the obvious: “Diego Costa”.

His fellow Brazilian, albeit now a member of Vicente del Bosque’s Spain squad, is this year’s outstanding player in Atletico Madrid’s season, in the Spanish league season and – Tuesday night and next Wednesday’s quarter-final games against Barcelona pending – the Champions League campaign too.

“It’s not just for his goals,” said Alves. “It’s the way he works so hard for the team.” Diego Simeone, the Atletico manager, described his striker’s appetite and spirit as “contagious” after his goal brought them back into the game at the weekend against Athletic Bilbao and kept them top.

He also suggested Costa will struggle to start on Tuesday night after having not recovered from that heroic, bruising, line-leading performance. Atletico fans believe Simeone is playing mind games going into the biggest game of the season. Barcelona hope he’s telling the truth.

Costa’s 62 goals for Atletico in 126 matches might not match Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ratios but give him a higher goals per games average than predecessors such as Diego Forlan, Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero.

Costa has 33 goals this season after replacing Radamel Falcao, whose 70-goal haul for the club is now within his grasp. “It’s the runs he makes down the channels when he just sets off and no one can stop him,” says the Colombian about his successor.

Costa’s importance to Atletico will match Messi’s for Barcelona if both men are on the pitch. The Argentine has scored in his last five games, making it 17 in his last 12 matches. He is on 67 goals in the Champions League, just four from equalling Raul’s record of 71.

Messi also has an incredible record against Atletico Madrid with 17 goals in 15 matches but this is the first time he will have faced them in the Champions League, in which Costa has scored seven goals in just five matches.

Like Messi, he has scored in the last five games and, as Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Iturraspe said after the game at the weekend: “You have to work very hard to score 25 goals for Atletico Madrid.” Costa’s team-mate, defender Diego Godin, added: “He gets better and better every day. He is capable of opening a game up for us with strength or with his skill.”

It is that mixture of brute force and Brazilian technique that will test Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique tonight. The room for “further development” that Godin talks about is also a concern for Atletico Madrid supporters. Will Costa want to continue his education with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea next season?

Godin’s battle with Messi will be key. The Uruguayan was criticised for appearing to celebrate an injury to Messi in a game earlier in the season – commentators who have never had to mark one of history’s greatest players tut-tutted at the perceived lack of sportsmanship.

Tonight’s game also pits Barça midfielder Xavi against the player he sees as replacing him in the Spain team after the World Cup. “Koke is the man who will orchestrate the national side’s midfield for the next 10 years,” he said. “He never gives the ball away.”

There is also a stark contrast in the two goals. Atletico Madrid have on-loan Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois, who at 21 has a potentially trophy-laden career ahead of him. At 38, Jose Pinto is coming to the end of his, and is Barça’s first choice after Victor Valdes’ season-ending cruciate ligament injury. Pinto must keep out Costa tonight and help Barcelona avoid conceding an away goal.

Alves and coach Tata Martino denied they would prefer to play the second leg at home but there is an added pressure to go to the Vicente Calderon, where Atletico are unbeaten this season, with a good result.

Alves also defended his compatriot Neymar, whose form for Barcelona has dipped of late and whose goals return remains lower than both Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, players who have invariably been relegated to the bench to accommodate the expensive new signing.

Alves said: “What we are seeing from him now is perfectly normal. What was not normal was the way he started his career at Barça, adapting so quickly. It feels as if the criticism started when the details of his contract were revealed.”

Neymar’s estimated cost has risen to more than £80m with the recalculation of the deal that took him from Santos to Barcelona. He has been outshone so far by Costa, the player Brazil rejected last year, allowing him to switch allegiance to Spain.

Neymar can take consolation from the fact that he is not the only one who has been left in Costa’s shadow this season.