Costa's absence offers Aspas an unlikely chance up front for Spain
As one door closes, another opens. Or should that read curtain? At around the same time that Diego Costa was preparing to leave Spain's squad on Thursday, injury forcing him out, Iago Aspas was taking a shower when Celta Vigo's kit man burst in. You'd like to think someone put on the "Pyscho" music for a laugh, even if Aspas is not Marion Crane and, instead of a knife, the kit man was carrying good news: Iago, you've been called up the Spain squad. Aspas changed, dashed to the airport, caught a flight and landed at Madrid Barajas. At 29, he was in the national squad for the first time and declared it "a dream come true."
Chelsea would have preferred Costa not to have travelled to Spain at all but at least now he was travelling back again, the risk averted. Costa trained with the national team -- well, he tried -- but he had not recovered from a muscle strain and so the decision was made. Costa was gone; he will miss Spain's game against Macedonia on Saturday and Tuesday's friendly against England at Wembley.
Vicente Del Bosque had taken the risk of making Costa a Spanish international less than a year after the striker played twice for Brazil. He had taken him back to his home country for the 2014 World Cup, where Costa was been abused by supporters. It would be worth it, Del Bosque thought at first; after a while, he had wondered if it really was. Everyone seemed to talk more about Costa's behaviour than his football. In part, at least, because there really wasn't much football to talk about.
In Brazil, he'd had little impact as Spain crashed out in the group stage.Though Costa scored his first international goal the following October, it had taken him seven games and was only the third in a 4-0 win over Luxembourg. No more followed in four more games. While Del Bosque defended him, he also came to doubt him. It wasn't just the lack of goals; Costa simply didn't seem to fit in Spain's style. Strikers often don't, it is true: it is a style that often denies space and makes their role thankless. There is a reason why Spain went for false nines on occasion and Costa was another actual No .9 unable to really find his place.
But Costa was supposed to offer something a little different. It wasn't supposed to matter that he didn't seem like a very "Spain" kind of player; in fact, that was supposed to be a good thing. But the inescapable fact was that it wasn't working. By the time Euro 2016 came round, Del Bosque left him out, which hurt Costa. At that point, it would have been natural for there to have been a feeling of regret on both sides: All that for this? It was legitimate to wonder if it was all over.
But Julen Lopetegui took over, prepared to give it another try. And this time looked different: Costa has started three of the four games under the new manager, scoring three times. Sure, they only came against Lichtenstein and Albania, but the sensation was different. He seemed to fit more.
Lopetegui had looked for ways to open teams up -- three at the back instead of four, Vitolo going outside rather than inside, the pitch wider and longer -- and Costa appeared to have a part to play. His confidence was growing too, helped by his club form. Although he had wanted to leave for Atletico Madrid in the summer, he has started the season superbly, scoring nine goals in 13 games for Chelsea.
Meanwhile, Spain teammates defended him, none more so than Alvaro Morata, the player competing for a place with him. The two are genuinely close: "He's a great person, the opposite of what he looks like on the pitch," Morata says of Costa. Vitolo agrees: "He is totally different off the pitch to the way he is on it. On the pitch, you see this guy who will fight with everyone. He's the 'bad person', the bad guy, but off it he's fantastic. I saw that first hand when I was first called up and he really helped me."
Lopetegui continues along the same line -- "he's a nice lad, good to be around" -- and also talks about not changing his game, about Costa being Costa. Vitolo -- another who symbolises the slight shift in Spain's style -- insists that you also have to look beyond the goals.
"When [Costa] arrived there was a lot of pressure on him: he had to score goals. Unfortunately he didn't do that at first but he was already doing other things," Vitolo says. "Now he's scoring and full of confidence, you can see it feels like he has more and more of a role in the team. You can't just judge [a forward] on goals. He takes the fight to defenders, shows a lot of character, and you appreciate that. He has a very strong character which gets held against him sometimes but it works in the team's favour; it becomes contagious and spreads through the entire team."
Costa's opportunity to impress came in part because of an injury to Morata, who scored three times at the Euros and started Lopetegui's first game, against Belgium. But he lasted just 27 minutes and then everything shifted. He went off; Costa came on and stayed there. When the Lichtenstein game came around, Morata was on the bench, though he did come on and score twice.
From not being sure about either, now both look like more of a guarantee and the competition between the two men is beneficial for la selección.. Morata has played 819 minutes for Madrid this season, roughly half those available, and has scored eight times. With Spain, he averages better than a goal every other game -- eight in 15 - and he is expected to start against Macedonia on Saturday.
If Morata can't play, or if Lopetegui wants something different, there's Aritz Aduriz, the 35 year old who has just had the perfect week: He scored five in one game, became a father and got a recall to the Spain squad.
Or there's Aspas, the 29-year-old who might suit Spain's style better than the others. He's not just a far better player than remembered by fans in England who watched him play for Liverpool; he's not just the top-scoring Spaniard in La Liga with six goals, including one against Barcelona; he's also a different type of striker. Not a traditional No. 9, but a player always on the move, full of energy, with vision and touch. Maybe even the nearest thing Spain have had, stylistically, to David Villa? That's the man pulled from the shower to play for his country.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.