By Chris Myson
Even in a high-profile international clash between the last two World Cup winners, all eyes were on Diego Costa as Spain met Italy on Wednesday night.
After his controversial decision to turn his back on Brazil, for whom he had already accumulated two caps, in favour of Vicente del Bosque’s men, the Atletico Madrid striker - scorer of 27 goals this season - made his debut with the world watching.
But despite Spain earning a creditable 1-0 victory courtesy of Pedro’s second-half strike, Costa’s first appearance for La Roja will go down as a disappointment.
Even though Atletico remain right in the Liga title race and the Champions League at a busy time of the season, Del Bosque opted to give the striker a full 90-minute run-out to stake his claim for World Cup selection this summer.
Playing as the lone striker with the likes of Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara in support, his home fans at the Vicente Calderon, where he has done so much damage this season, were expecting another blockbuster performance.
What they got was a dour display where Costa struggled to develop an understanding with his new team-mates and a performance that provides Del Bosque with more questions than answers in what was the last game before he names his squad for Brazil.
Costa began steadily enough, showing strength, neat touches and decent hold-up play in the early stages, but that was as good as it got for the 25-year-old, who became increasingly frustrated as he struggled to escape the close attention of Gabriel Paletta. The limited Parma defender, himself a naturalised South American, snuffed the Atleti star out on a regular basis as he made a strong debut for the Italians.
Two half-chances in the first half were blocked and a clearer opening early in the second period ended in a similar fashion. From then on, the striker became increasingly isolated.
Thiago, Pedro and substitute David Silva pulled the strings as Spain took a stranglehold on the game as Costa found it difficult to get involved. He touched the ball just 50 times, the worst return of any of the other starters. After screwing his shot well wide of the far post from his best opportunity of the match with 10 minutes remaining, Costa’s resigned look towards the dugout said it all.
After the game, Costa admitted that his second international debut could have gone better. He told reporters: "I am happy to have made my debut and for our victory, but I know I can give a lot more. I know the first game is not easy. I will keep doing my job at Atletico to have chances to be in the team."
After the match, the coach spoke of his hope that the striker will improve with every game, saying: "All of the players have become stronger and we have brought in Diego Costa who we feel will gradually adapt to the team’s style.
"He looked stable considering it was his first game but once he loosens up, I’m sure he will bring a lot to the team."
A place on the plane is surely going to go his way, but he is certainly not secure as Spain’s main starter in attack. For one, the performance against Italy proved it is not easy to integrate even players who are in the best of form into a side of world champions so quickly.
Koke and Juanfran were in the squad for this game but are by no means certainties for the plane, never mind the first XI in Brazil, while David Villa was left out of the pool, meaning Costa – if he is picked – could be the only Atleti player on the pitch, not something which makes an immediate adaptation likely.
Spain’s first two games at the World Cup are against the Netherlands and Chile – tricky encounters where Del Bosque may not want to take a risk.
With such big games straight from the start of the tournament, there is a case for going with a tried and trusted method, such as playing without a central striker. Cesc Fabregas, who has played at club and international level as a false nine before, was unimpressive from a deeper role in this game and moving him further forward creates an extra space for another pass-master in midfield.
If Del Bosque does want to pick a frontman, the temptation to pick one of Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente or Villa – all of whom have greater international experience and chemistry with the Spain first-teamers – must also be stronger after what he has seen against Italy, even if they are not as prolific as Costa at club level.
Of course, one poor performance does not mean that Costa cannot or will not be a dangerous weapon for Spain at the World Cup.
What his disappointing performance does do, though, is leave Del Bosque and his staff with a difficult decision to make ahead of this summer’s showpiece.