Madrid (AFP) – Diego Costa will walk out for his seventh Madrid derby in La Liga on Sunday, four seasons since his last at the Santiago Bernabeu when he scored Atletico’s winner.
Gareth Bale was making his home debut for Real that day back in September 2013, in the same week that Spain requested approval to snatch Costa from the clutches of Brazil and call him up to the national squad.
As he celebrated, Real’s fans chanted “Costa — he is not Spanish”.
All the more striking then that Costa’s shot, guided past Diego Lopez and inside the far right-hand post, still remains his only goal against Real, and the 1-0 win his sole triumph against Atletico’s fiercest rivals.
In all competitions, his record heading into this weekend’s derby reads played nine, won one, scored one.
– Spearheading Spain attack –
If Costa is looking for positive omens, however, he might draw a parallel between his initiation with Spain in 2013 and the completion of his renaissance with the national team last week.
After spending the first five months of this season exiled by Chelsea, Costa is back in favour with Julen Lopetegui and back in form, for club and country.
His goal in Spain’s 6-1 win over Argentina has thrust him into pole position to start up front at this summer’s World Cup, while his opposites-attract partnership with Antoine Griezmann has been the driving force behind Atletico’s march into second place.
That position, however, is what is at stake this weekend, with both sides now too far adrift to catch runaway leaders Barcelona and neither in any danger of slipping out of the Champions League spots.
Atletico own the four-point advantage but Real have the momentum, having won 11 out of their last 12, a streak that includes two wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Tuesday’s thumping of Juventus.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the star in Turin, his spectacular bicycle kick continuing the Portuguese’s astonishing goal flurry this year. He has scored 23 times in 14 games, and at least once in all of his last nine.
Unlike Costa, Ronaldo is well-tuned to this fixture too. He has six goals in his last five meetings with Atletico.
Bale, meanwhile, was caught stoney-faced on the substitutes bench while the Juve fans stood to salute Ronaldo’s brilliance but the out-of-favour Welshman may be given a run-out this weekend.
Zinedine Zidane has been prepared to use Bale in the league, where it seems the issue of his defensive resilience is less pronounced.
Barcelona’s players will be able to watch the derby safe in the knowledge that any result strengthens their grip on the title.
The Catalans host 14th-placed Leganes on Saturday, already nine points ahead of Atletico and 13 in front of Real.
If they avoid defeat, Ernesto Valverde’s team will equal the Spanish record of 38 unbeaten league matches, set by Real Sociedad across two seasons in 1978/79 and 1979/80.
Lionel Messi is likely to play, having come through Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Roma unscathed after his niggling hamstring problem. Sergio Busquets, however, still felt pain at the Camp Nou from his previously broken toe and may be rested.
Elsewhere, the league’s four bottom sides go head-to-head as Levante, with a seven-point cushion over the relegation places, host 18th-placed Las Palmas. On Friday, Deportivo La Coruna are at home to already-doomed Malaga.
The race for Europa Legue qualification also continues on Saturday as Sevilla travel to Celta Vigo and Real Betis entertain Eibar. Villarreal face Athletic Bilbao on Monday.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Deportivo La Coruna v Malaga (2100)
Alaves v Getafe (1300), Celta Vigo v Sevilla (1615), Betis v Eibar (1830), Barcelona v Leganes (2045)
Levante v Las Palmas (1200), Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid (1615), Real Sociedad v Girona (1830), Valencia v Espanyol (2045)
Villarreal v Athletic Bilbao