The Europa League semifinals will be Arsenal’s first ever competitive meeting with Atletico Madrid. And yet the Gunners will be up against a familiar foe when they take on the Spanish side.
That’s right, Arsenal fans’ favourite villain Diego Costa could come back to haunt the club again. The former Chelsea striker has had some memorable battles against Arsene Wenger’s side and will relish the chance to rattle the Gunners’ back four once again.
That is, if he’s fit to play. Costa limped off with a thigh injury during Thursday’s quarterfinal against Sporting Lisbon, and Arsenal may well hope he doesn’t recover in time for the April 26 semifinal at the Emirates.
Here’s a look at Arsenal’s top tussles with Costa in the past, showing why he could be the biggest threat to Arsenal’s hopes of reaching the Europa League final in Lyon …
Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal — Premier League, Oct. 5, 2014
Costa’s first game against Arsenal was more memorable for a dust-up between the two managers, with Arsene Wenger shoving Jose Mourinho in the chest as tempers flared on the sidelines at Stamford Bridge. But Costa delivered the bigger blow when he killed off the game by scoring Chelsea’s second, beating Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny to a perfect ball over the top from former Gunner Cesc Fabregas and coolly chipping the ball into the net. It wasn’t the last time he’d prove a thorn in Arsenal’s side.
Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal — Premier League, Sept. 19, 2015
This was the game that turned Costa into arch villain No. 1 in the eyes of many Arsenal fans. He didn’t score but had a decisive impact when he managed to get Gabriel Paulista sent off through a mix of theatrics and dirty tricks. Costa first got away with swiping Koscielny in the face and pushing the centre-back to the ground, then managed to rile up Gabriel to the extent that the Brazilian retaliated unwisely to get a second booking. Down to 10 men, Arsenal couldn’t withstand Chelsea’s pressure in the second half with Kurt Zouma scoring the opener in 53rd minute, before a late own-goal from Calum Chambers sealed the result. The fact that Costa was handed a three-game ban retrospectively, while Gabriel’s suspension was overturned, did little to take away the sense of injustice.
Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea — Premier League, Jan. 24, 2016
Costa produced his own version of a “double” in this one — getting an Arsenal player sent off and scoring the winning the goal to cement his status as the Gunners’ top nemesis.
This time he earned the red card fairly, though, beating the slower Mertesacker to the ball and forcing the German to bring him down with a professional foul to prevent him going clear through on goal. Arsenal could only hold on for five minutes before Costa stuck the knife in, turning in a low cross at the near post for the winning goal — preventing Arsenal from going top of the league in the process.
Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea — FA Cup final, May 27, 2017
Arsenal finally got the better of Costa, and Chelsea, in a 3-0 home win in 2016 in the Premier League. But it was the FA Cup final later that season that provided their biggest triumph against fiery striker. Mertesacker, making his first start of the season, and the young Rob Holding surprisingly managed to keep Costa largely quiet throughout the game — even though the striker seized on his only chance to score a second-half equaliser. It was even Holding who seemingly managed to get under Costa’s skin, instead of the other way around, during a first-half altercation between the two. It’s this game, rather than the previous three on the list, that Arsenal will use as their blueprint for how to handle Costa when they square off again on April 26.
Mattias is ESPN FC’s Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.