All eyes were on the Brazilian-born Diego Costa, the striker bound for Chelsea fresh from leading Atletico Madrid to the league title, as Spain launched the defence of their world crown in calamitous fashion.
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Encouraging for 45 minutes, albeit with understandable signs of ring-rustiness after a lay-off and a couple of caveats, Costa’s most positive contribution was to win the penalty Xabi Alonso converted. He had the nous to ensure Stefan de Vrij caught his trailing leg but it was the preceding run that was particularly revealing.
Costa made a series of intelligent darts in behind the Dutch defence – on this occasion to meet Xavi’s through ball – and added another dimension to Spain’s game. Alonso, in particular, looked for him with piercing, forward passes; it was less tiki-taka, more Liverpool a la Rafael Benitez, when Alonso aimed for Fernando Torres in similar style. He also illustrated the benefits of picking a specialist striker, rather than the false nine Cesc Fabregas; with an out-and-out attacker, Holland ran the risk of letting Costa spring the offside trap if they pushed up to try and compress the game.
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The other blight came in front of goal. Costa was not at his sharpest, as he showed with his hesitation when granted an initial chance to shoot; that delay allowed Ron Vlaar to get a block in. His second effort was blazed well wide. At the same time it was perhaps understandable given his recent injury problems; he certainly isn’t at his sharpest and, in the second half, made a negligible impact until his substitution, which was a clear sign that he has been rushed back too soon.
Vlaar prospered in his personal duel with Costa, but while he profited by moving around to take on the other centre-backs, who found him harder to contain, one moment with Martins Indi cast a shadow over his night.
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Chelsea, which is just as well as they will sign him for £32 million. Costa scored more league goals last season than Samuel Eto’o, Torres and Demba Ba mustered between them. A comparison could be drawn with the Cameroonian, utterly ineffective in his country’s defeat to Mexico three hours earlier, and a striker who lacks his physicality and aggressiveness.
Chelsea’s style should suit Costa better than Spain’s does. If the world champions are amending their gameplan to accommodate Costa, he should be integral to Chelsea’s. Jose Mourinho’s long-standing belief in a counter-attacking game means Costa’s directness will be vital. Chelsea will look to get the ball forward quicker than Spain do.
Mourinho lamented Chelsea’s lack of a striker last season – and compared to Manchester City and Liverpool, they certainly didn’t have a prolific scorer in attack – but he will be part finisher, part foil. Costa should be granted the job of stretching defences and occupying centre-backs to create room for Eden Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Cesc Fabregas to exploit. As Didier Drogba was during Mourinho’s first spell in charge, Costa should be a spearhead. As he is ideally equipped to operate as a lone striker, he is a natural fit for Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
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Regaining full fitness, hopefully. Because of the hamstring injury Costa sustained at the Nou Camp on the final day of the La Liga season, and which restricted his participation in the Champions League final to nine minutes, he wasn’t expected to start against Holland and he faded in the second half before Torres replaced him.
His understanding with his Spain colleagues should improve with more time together (although, after a 5-1 thrashing, they may only have two more games in this World Cup). This was just Costa’s third cap and, as eight of the other 10 starters play for Real Madrid or Barcelona and none for Atletico, he represented an outsider. While there were promising signs, they aren’t utilising him to his full potential yet.