It is not often that a player with the quality and experience of Diego Costa becomes available on the eve of the January transfer window and the burly striker is sure to attract plenty of attention.
Costa is a free agent after agreeing to end his Atletico Madrid contract six months early due to personal reasons. The 32-year-old forward had made just three substitute appearances since mid-October and had fallen out of favour with manager Diego Simeone.
Atleti re-signed Costa, who made his name at the Spanish side during a four-year stint from 2010 to 2014, in January 2018 after a protracted exit from Chelsea, but he has been stuck behind Luis Suarez and Joao Felix in the pecking order this season.
Despite his recent struggles for game time, Costa remains a high-profile and tempting proposition for many clubs. He is a proven and determined goalscorer who offers physical presence opposition defenders hate going up against. His win-at-all-costs outlook may not win over fans, but it is effective.
Costa’s 59 goals in 120 games for Chelsea and his 54 strikes in 114 appearances during his first spell at Atletico Madrid are undeniably elite numbers.
January is a difficult time to do business, with clubs desperate and transfer fees inflated. A proven goalscorer (one who even comes with glowing reference from his former manager) and is available for free is a rarity.
“You know how much we love Diego,” Simeone said on Tuesday. “We have been together for a long time and always [got on] in the best way. We gave each other a lot and we have spoken. He needs to find new challenges because he’s in good shape, strong. I can’t imagine any scenario other than one in which he gives his best, because he’s a fighter.”
So, which clubs might move for Costa? Let’s take a look at the dream, realistic and wildcard options and Squawka’s suggested pick.
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Dream: Manchester City
“We thought about it, maybe another type of striker but we could not,” said Pep Guardiola earlier this season. “If you decide to buy a striker, it has to be a striker in the league of Gabriel [Jesus] and Sergio [Aguero] but we cannot afford it. That is the reality.”
If Costa is in the shape Simeone says he is, then he could fit the bill for Manchester City’s manager. If City can no longer afford to pay the sort of transfer fee they have become accustomed to in recent years, then a free agent could be the solution.
Sergio Aguero’s fitness has been a continued problem this season. City’s all-time record goalscorer has been struggling with a knee injury and has made just eight appearances so far this season, just three of which have been starts. He has scored twice in the Champions League, but his total of 241 minutes across all competitions is a worry.
Gabriel Jesus is now fully fit but his goal in the 4-1 EFL Cup win over Arsenal on 22 December was his first in eight games and he has since tested positive for Covid-19. The 23-year-old Brazilian has failed to fill the sizeable boots of Aguero, leaving Guardiola to try other options.
Ferran Torres has filled in admirably in a central position, while Raheem Sterling has also shifted from his wide position, but the need for a specialist is clear.
While Costa might well fancy a move back to the Premier League to play alongside the creative talents of Kevin De Bruyne, there is a catch. He will reportedly have to pay a €15million fee if he moves to a team in La Liga or the Champions League. That fee would likely be picked up by any side like City who are in the last 16 of the Champions League, but it means his free-agent status isn’t quite so ‘free’.
Ultimately, despite their need for a striker, City are unlikely to move for a player nearing the end of his career who would command high wages and a €15m fee.
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Costa reportedly wants to stay and challenge himself in one of Europe’s top five leagues, but the lure of the big bucks in the Middle East and China could have its say.
When Costa was in the middle of his acrimonious divorce with Chelsea in 2017 he was repeatedly linked with the Chinese Super League. Tianjin Quanjian were apparently willing to splash £80m on a transfer fee and £30m per year in wages on Costa before a new rule limiting the number of foreign players allowed in CSL matchday squads was introduced.
Tianjin folded in May amid Covid-19 concerns and the Chinese Super League gold rush has slowed in recent years, but the desire to land a big fish like Costa remains true with certain competitions in Asia.
If a move to a top European club evaporates then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Costa move to China or the Middle East.
Spanish outlet AS report that Arsenal have been monitoring Costa’s contractual situation recently, but the Gunners don’t appear to be a good fit for the Spanish striker.
Although Arsenal have struggled in front of goal this season, scoring just 16 in 16 Premier League games so far, they should have learned their lesson about buying Chelsea cast-offs. Willian, who is also 32, was given a three-year contract in the summer in a move which is already appearing to backfire and Mikel Arteta would be best served focusing on improving Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Eddie Nketiah.
Wolves, on the other hand, appear a better match for Costa. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are on the hunt for a new striker after the outstanding Raul Jimenez suffered a fractured skull against Arsenal on 29 November and have previously been linked with Costa.
“We just have to bring players and honestly when we have a short squad like we have and we want to maintain this idea, more important is being versatile,” Nuno said in July 2019 when he was asked about Costa. “Versatile enough to do different positions on the pitch, so it takes time to decide, we choose the right targets and now we go and try to bring them.”
Wolves ended up signing Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan instead last summer, but a move for Costa appears to be on the cards this time around, with no €15m fee to consider.
With the dependable Jimenez out, Nuno has been forced to play less established players up front in recent games. Pedro Neto has been impressive in a supporting role, but 18-year-old Fabio Silva has looked raw and Daniel Podence and Adama Traore are not out-and-out strikers.
Wolves have one big advantage when it comes to Costa. The striker’s agent is Jorge Mendes, whose GestiFute agency has extremely close ties to the club. Nuno was Mendes’ first client in 1996 and GestiFute has a close relationship with the Fosun conglomerate which took over Wolves in 2016 and also have a stake in GestiFute’s parent company Start SGPS.
If Wolves want to pursue a move for Costa then those existing relationships could prove key.
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Squawka suggests: Napoli
Serie A heavyweights AC Milan and Juventus have both been linked to Costa, but reports in Italy suggest neither are seriously considering signing the former Chelsea striker, with Milan unsure of the benefits of another strong personality alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juve looking for a different kind of forward as back-up to Alvaro Morata.
However, there is another Italian club who appear to be a good fit for Costa. Atletico Madrid are reportedly in talks with Napoli about Arkadiusz Milik and Squawka thinks the two clubs could have more in common.
Napoli are off the pace in Serie A, sitting in fifth place, nine points adrift of leaders AC Milan and are winless in their last three league matches.
Gennaro Gattuso’s side have plenty of talented forwards. Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, in particular, are excellent, but with the Belgian currently out with an ankle injury, Victor Osimhen sidelined with a shoulder problem and Milik and the frozen-out Fernando Llorente heading towards the exit, there is space for a new face up front.
Andrea Petagna has been filling in recently, but his three goals in 18 appearances across all competitions is indicative of a player currently short of the quality required by Napoli.
Costa would fit into the style Napoli play. He has the physical attributes and experience to play up front in Gattuso’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and with players of the quality of Insigne, Hirving Lozano and Piotr Zielinski flanking him, he could be a dangerous prospect.
Napoli are not in the Champions League, so wouldn’t have to pay the €15m fee to Atleti, but would offer Costa the opportunity to play at a high level, in Serie A and the Europa League.