22 August 2013

Bye Bye Badman?

A profile of the man of the moment, Diego Costa, for Back Page Football

Diego Costa is one of the true characters of La liga. Maybe ‘character’ doesn’t quite cover it, though.
Call him a joker, call him a clown. Many have called him far worse things which would be out of place on a family website like this.
After one particularly feisty game against Betis last December where he proved the match-winner, Marca went so far as to call him ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Costa’. He’s the cabrón… the fighter; and the wind up merchant supreme.
Angel with the dirty face, or devil?

However this season, he’s also a man on a mission. And one who, increasingly, appears to have a more mature head on his shoulders. But equally, one who is not willing to go too far in compromising what makes him great; for better or worse.
Both sides were evident on Sunday when Atlético Madrid visited Sevilla. It was a daunting test to open the season with. Last season, the clubs clashed four times. Last season also, Diego Costa clashed- quite literally- with half of the Sevilla team. And bench.
But, just as then, so now; when it mattered most it was a test they passed. With flying colours.
And it was Diego Costa who made all the difference with two exquisite goals.
For much of his career, he’s been a journeyman. A rebel without a cause. A thermos-flask head. He made little impact back home in Brazil at youth level, but was spotted by Portugal’s SC Braga back in 2006.
After one successful season on loan at second division Penafiel, Atlético Madrid saw enough to fork out €1.5m to bring him to the Spanish capital. But for years, and over many loan spells, he failed to convince anyone that he was little more than a slightly thuggish young fella with severe anger-management issues.
Indeed, this time last year he didn’t even know which club he’d be playing at, as he alluded to some months back. But this summer, not only did Atleti bat away a £20m bid from Liverpool, they offered him a fat new contract.
“It’s put me in a good frame of mind. It means I’ve been doing my job well, but also that the responsibility’s grown and I’ve got to be ready”.
From being a nobody to being a full Brazil international- who capped him just as he looked set to be called up by Spain- in the space of 18 months, it’s been an incredible turnaround.
It was January of last year that it all began to fall into place.
Costa was sent across town to Rayo Vallecano that transfer window. Nobody had given the club a hope of coming up the season before, and less still gave them a prayer of surviving.
And yet, with the league’s smallest budget they’d made a mockery of all that by entering the winter break in the top half.
It couldn’t last. A succession of losses saw them plummet, and soon they were battling for survival. But along with Michu, Diego Costa’s goals helped them beat the drop by the skin of their teeth on the final day. In his time in Vallecas, the Brazilian netted nine times in sixteen matches.
Last year he was given his chance by Diego Simeone, initially in Europe. By December, he’d made himself an integral part of the side, as Falcao’s foil.
And though his strike rate in the league was a respectable 10 from 31, he finished the season as top scorer in their march to the Copa del Rey title. Combined with the Europa League, he struck 10 in 13 cup appearances.
But the darkness was never too far from the surface. He picked up his fair share of yellow cards, though less than we might think. He also proved adept at getting opponents booked and sent to the stands. He dived at times, but mostly he niggled. A word here, a sneaky punch there.
And worse. Much worse.
Against Sevilla he got under his opponents skin like a rash, drawing a red card in a nasty spiteful encounter. Afterwards, Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia was incensed, claiming on Twitter that he had been racially abused.
By time the same sides met over two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-final, it had become a running battle. And one which all parties were only too happy to resume last Sunday.
Against Real Madrid in the league he was caught on camera punching, gobbing, abusing, and even surreptitiously flicking spit off his gloves all over Pepe and Sergio Ramos.
Video uploaded by Med Freeman
Amazingly at the final whistle, they all took the old Sepp Blatter diktat. Costa warmly embraced Ramos, before seeking out Pepe for more of the same and said “It’s just football guys. No bother, eh!”
Without going too far down the road of moral relativism, this is sure to appear shocking in our own cultural context in the British Isles. This writer is not going to defend these actions for a minute. Quite the opposite.
But a certain amount of to-and-fro is accepted, or more correctly, more accepted in other parts of the world. The mind boggles at what would result this season had that Liverpool bid been accepted and Costa paired alongside Luís Suárez.
Probably, Suárez would have come off looking the good egg of the pair.
The Suárez parallel is instructive, though only to a point.
Off the field, his colleagues have described him as “a great guy”, “really sweet” and, always in a happy mood”.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. It brings to mind the reflex English managerial defence when a player throws an elbow, or worse, puts in a leg-breaker.
Not that sort of player. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But it’s true to the extent that we can see it. He comes across as an engaging, matter-of-fact, and well spoken guy not only from this writers’ own personal experience, but from several interviews given this year.
The most recent of those came last week in El País.
It’s been a good pre-season, Costa tells us. “I went home to my town to relax”, he says “had a few kickabouts with my mates outside my aunt’s gaff. They’re pretty handy! They play hard, but they’re also warm and well, like family to me”.
Asked if he’d been taking care of himself, he said he had.
“Yeah, I mean, I ate beans, rice, some meat… you really notice when you arrive back to camp and you’re at your ideal weigh, you hit the ground running. These are things you learn over time and maybe in the past I didn’t help myself.
On the prickly question of his on-field conduct, he insists he’s getting better and that his boss Simeone, who knows a thing or two in this area, has warned him that once the referees have you marked as that kind of a guy, well… one feels the advice may have come a little too late for that.
“Look, I think the refs have been fair with me,” he begins. “and sometimes they’ve had to book me to calm me down”.
“And if you look at the stats, you’ll see I was booked four times in the Europa League and sent off once, but I definitely don’t look and think ‘oh, they could have given me, like, five reds’. No way”.
He continues. “I want to improve, but I won’t change my way of playing either. I’ve never gone in to deliberately hurt someone, that’s important”.
More sinner than sinned against, perhaps? No. Costa would have none of that.
“What’s important is I don’t hurt my team, that I don’t injure an opponent, that I defend my own as they defend theirs. I’ve suffered from going too far and never complained, never will”.
It was put to him that, sometimes he seeks to provoke, and other times he’s been the victim of provocation. But how did he feel looking back on the TV at the infamous spitting incident?
“I know, and though you don’t see [from the reel] who started it, it’s obvious- it [the spitting] was ugly. I won’t deny that for a second” he commenced. “It’s true, but it’s also very easy to say that sitting at home watching all those replays”.
“But on the field, you hear every word. An opponent’s never come up to me and said ‘Oh, Diego, I love you’. You’re always hearing things.”. He goes on. “I’ve been kicked, most times I control myself, others no, and some people can handle that better than others.”
“I know I need to work on that, but if other people know you’re quick-tempered…” he pauses. “Defenders will always look for a fella when they know they can get their goat. I never look for it, but hey, if they come looking for me, they’re gonna find me. But, you have to see who starts it”.
“I will improve on this, I know how I was five years ago and how I am now. I’ve changed and that took a lot of effort”.
Could Atleti go one better this year and split the big two, he was asked. “The gaffer’s given us the right mentality. We’ll get to the end of the season and see what we can do, that’s the idea”.
“If we get near the end, and we’re still in with a shout, then we’ll keep on fighting. When Atleti go for it, we go for it for real. Listen, 90% woulda’ said we couldn’t beat Real in the Cup final, but we’re a unit that knows how to compete.”
Having battled against all odds to claim that cup success, only the foolish would doubt Costa means it when he speaks now.
Whether he can sort out his on-field antics, well. Let’s file that one under ‘remains to be seen’.

21 August 2013

The sinner who became a Saint

A profile on Southampton's colourful new signing for the Irish Examiner print edition

Southampton’s record signing Pablo Osvaldo says he will not make the mistakes his compatriot Mario Balotelli made in the Premier League, says Joseph Sexton
In signing Pablo Daniel Osvaldo for a fee that could reach £15m (€17.5m) with add-ons, Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino has potentially pulled off a real coup for the south coast club. 

But the deal is not without its risks. 

It was under Pochettino’s hand at Espanyol that the Argentina-born Italy striker first began to bloom into a real talent, capable of performing at a high level consistently. But equally ‘Dani’ comes with something of a reputation as a bad egg. 

Pablo Daniel Osvaldo meeting Pope Francis

In recent years, that hasn’t had any great impact on his displays on the field. His initial arrival on loan at Espanyol in January 2010 lifted the club out of a sticky situation. And as Osvaldo alluded to on Monday, the faith shown in by the current Saints manager was crucial in helping him grow as a player. 

A series of enforced sales by Espanyol fatally undermined Pochettino’s later tenure, leading to his departure last November. It would be no exaggeration to say that Osvaldo’s move to Roma in 2011 was chief amongst these. 

Espanyol found his goals hard to replace as well as his ability in leading the line. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, Osvaldo proved to be amongst the better acquisitions of a mixed bag signed in Luís Enrique’s time at Roma. 

His goal return of 28 from 57 games in all competitions represented an improvement from an already impressive ratio at Espanyol. But the forward’s more colourful side also proved deeply problematic at times. 

At Espanyol, he had developed a reputation as a party boy; the football satire show Cráckovia invariably depicted him as something of a goofy Saturday Night Fever caricature. But for the most part, he delivered the goods and was a popular a figure in the dressing room and the stands. 

In Italy, however, that dynamic changed. Luís Enrique is something of a disciplinarian, and friction emerged early on in, as Roma struggled to adapt to the Spanish manager’s methods. 

Perhaps the most infamous such incident followed a November 2011 reverse at Udinese. Osvaldo got into a heated argument with his young Argentine colleague, the flashy former River Plate attacker, Erik Lamela. 

Osvaldo, according to sources, was infuriated at Lamela’s failure to give him the ball during the match. When Lamela ignored him, the incensed Osvaldo shouted “I’m older than you and this isn’t River, so answer me when I talk to you!” 

Lamela countered “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re not Maradona!” Osvaldo is then alleged to have cold clocked him with a punch to the face. Osvaldo denies this part, insisting it was a slap followed by some pushing. 

What is certain is Luís Enrique took a dim view of the matter, fining him maximum possible under Italian league rules — €50,000 — and banned him from the next weekend’s fixture. 

His reputation for partying grew even more notorious in Rome, earning him the wrath of supporters. In their customary fashion, graffiti was daubed on the training ground walls. 

Osvaldo could hardly have made matters worse then by being seen driving around Rome in a Mini festooned with the colours of Napoli — Roma’s fierce rivals — and the image of Maradona, a figure of hate for fans of other Italian sides. 

He also controversially refused to collect his runners-up medal after their Coppa Italia loss to Lazio in May; an act of petulance which saw Cesare Prandelli leave him out of the Confederations Cup squad. 

But what took the biscuit — and largely made this move possible — was the actions of his glamorous girlfriend Jimena Baron, when she took to Twitter last Thursday to bite back at the fans in Spanish. 

After calling them “pathetic fans, jerks” she proceeded to tell them “get a life. Your ignorance and immaturity is painful. You’re so thick you probably can’t even read this”. 

Not content, she went one further in her next tweet. “Here’s a universal sign for you ignorant lot who won’t stop pestering me and my boyfriend. You’ll get this one... kiss it!” 

Attached was a photo off her middle finger extended against a backdrop saying, in English, “F*** you”. 

Naturally, this served to make Osvaldo’s situation at the club untenable. But what Southampton are getting for their money is a talented footballer at a generous price. Quick, strong in the air, and athletic; physically he appears made for the Premier League. Indeed, he could well light it up. 

And as he has made clear he will relish his reunion with Pochettino. It will be intriguing to see how he fits into the manager’s plans. Pochettino generally favours a 4-2-3-1 but this gives him the option of playing two up front in certain games where he could wreak havoc alongside Rickie Lambert. 

However this works out, it’s certain that it’s not going to be boring. 

* Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved


19 August 2013

An Unequal League

My Column for the Irish Examiner

Joseph Sexton

The early signs were ominous, confirming all our worst fears. Coming against the backdrop of another summer’s exodus, with England- again- proving the most popular destination, it was hard to deny that La Liga is in a much weaker state this season. While both Madrid and Barcelona have strengthened, the rest have been depleted.

Gone is Falcao, Atletico Madrid’s best player. Diego Costa may soon be following him. Real Sociedad lost Asier Illaramendi, their most important player, to Real Madrid, and it’s rumoured their next most, Antoine Griezmann may be off to Everton.

Isco broke Betis' hearts with his late header

Valencia have lost Roberto Soldado, and more are forecast to exit. Betis lost Beñat, though at least he went to Bilbao; but the Basques have lost Fernando Llorente anyway. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th top scorers from last term all made moves abroad. And even all of this together is far from the full story.

We needed something to believe in. But when Barcelona went ahead at home to Levante after just two and a half minutes, the nightmare scenario appeared to have arrived. By half-time, they were six to the good- the highest ever on an opening day before the break, and equalling Levante’s worst-ever defeat. It was first time any team had scored so many before the interval since 2001.

“Look, we’ve just left the dentists”, was their new manager Joaquín Caparrós’ verdict. “Next!”.

Perhaps then, it’s fair to say that final winning of seven seemed a minor reprieve.

But then Betis reminded us all of that, even in this unequal league, the little guy can stand as equal with the very best when we least expect it. Levante, a team known for their rugged defence, were naive in the extreme in attacking Barcelona. But attacking is what Betis generally do, and Real Madrid were rattled to their core.

Of Betis’ starting 11, only two had arrived at the club for a fee. One of those other nine was Cedric, a young Congolese who arrived from second division Numancia in the summer and put in a thrilling performance. On any other day, the man of the match gong would have been his hands’ down.

It was an all action opening, where Madrid lacked fluency. With 14 minutes played, Cedric wriggled free and teed up Jorge Molina to stun the Bernabéu.

It’s true that by then Real had already a goal- rightly- chalked off for offside. But just minutes later Cedric was at it again, laying it off for Joan Verdú the sort of chance you’d expect him to routinely score.

Now the home crowd had found their object of displeasure, as Karim Benzema was caught offside. Yet again, he’d failed abysmally to time his run to the great frustration of his colleagues.

And then, Real had a second goal ruled out. Again, it would have been an own goal for Perquís but to his great credit the linesman had spotted the offside. Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti looked aghast as Benzema failed to connect with Marcelo’s cross. Ronaldo clipped the bar before Benzema produced a stunning miss.

Betis hadn’t gone quiet and looked to attack with pace and precision. But then Isco, the debutant, presented the opening for Benzema to level. In truth, it was the most difficult chance the Frenchman had had.

Nosa headed against the bar for the visitors, Ronaldo was pulled back for offside, Betis should have had a penalty... And Benzema struck the third offside goal of the night. It was fast, furious and utterly compelling. Half time came with the score tied.

After the break it was all Real. Just 20 seconds in Ronaldo hit the bar. Di María found no luck, and the substitutes Casemiro and Álvaro Morata almost combined to put them in front. By the time the latter had a fourth goal ruled out on 84 minutes, it looked like being another of those nights for the hosts. A new regime, a new formation, but plus ça change.

Last season Betis didn’t surrender a single point in the final ten minutes, and that run looked set to continue. Then, we got one of those moments that remind us what we love about this imperfect league, and this imperfect sport that is football.

Marcelo was one of the main culprits of Madrid’s annus horribilus, but after his impressive Confederations Cup he was right on note here. A lung-busting run, a wonderfully struck cross, and an absolute gem of a header from Isco. And broken hearts for Betis fans. All their good work had come to naught.

Betis’ spokesman- the former Real legend Rafael Gordillo- was sanguine after the game. “We’ve made some mistakes, we’ve been unlucky, and we have to congratulate them”.

Emilio Butragueño was the first figure to be wheeled out by Real Madrid. “A very hard match. Betis were fantastic. Isco’s input was superb, both the assist and header. Man of the match,” he continued. “But it’s too soon to evaluate the team.” When asked about a certain Welsh winger, he laughed. “Bale? We only speak of our own players”.


“A fine dance to begin with” read Marca’s headline following Barcelona’s victory. Indeed it had been, as they waltzed through Levante. Neymar, only a 60th minute substitute, failed to score. But both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez did. And under Tata Martino, that old incessant pressing returned, leading directly to Lionel Messi’s first goal.

Martino noted “We’ve done things that were, let’s say, put on hold. Like the high line. Those are good signs.” Xavi also struck a similar note. “Last season when Tito [Vilanova] wasn’t there we didn’t train tactics as much, how to pressurise the opponent and we lost our way”.

One man who certainly doing things his way was Diego Costa. His way in that he continued his comic book villain act, resuming his running battle with half the Sevilla side from last season.

But also in his decisive contribution. The Brazil striker fired Atlético ahead on 35 minutes. Diego Perotti then equalised two minutes later with a staggering long range effort.

On 78 minutes, Mario Suárez robbed the ball before playing an incisive pass. Diego Costa produced a fine first touch and a finish to match. 30 seconds into added time, Cebolla Rodriguez scored a sublime individual effort, cutting in from the right and beating several Sevilla players to end the contest.

Real Sociedad 2 Getafe 0
Valladolid 1 Athletic Bilbao 2
Valencia 1 Málaga 0
Barcelona 7 Levante 0
Real Madrid 2 Betis 1
Sevilla 1 Atlético Madrid 3

Rayo Vallecano v Elche
Almería v Villarreal
Celta Vigo v Espanyol

Follow Joseph on Twitter @josephsbcn