The secrets of Diogo Costa's penalty heroics: Patience, explosiveness, going with your gut


As the game moved into its 120th minute, it was so obvious Portugal and Slovenia’s Euro 2024 last-16 meeting would end with one group of players sprinting towards their goalkeeper from the halfway line, arms aloft, hailing his heroics.

And surely it was going to be the goalkeeper who had already saved one penalty and been his side’s last line of defence in a resolute but intelligent and skilful rearguard action. It had to be Jan Oblak, Slovenia’s captain and seven-time player of the year, right?

After all, the 31-year-old had saved two spot kicks only three and a half months ago to help his club Atletico Madrid beat Inter Milan in a Champions League last-16 shootout, his third win on penalties in that particular competition for the La Liga side.

But winning the toss so Slovenia could take the first shot in a shootout for a place in this European Championship’s quarter-finals was the last call Oblak got right.

His opposite number, Diogo Costa, on the other hand, went left to stop Josip Ilicic’s first effort, then right and right again to thwart Jure Balkovec and Benjamin Verbic.

Oblak, meanwhile, got nowhere near penalties from Cristiano Ronaldo, who went left, having gone right 20 minutes before, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva. After two hours of watching Oblak and his back four repel everything they threw at them, Portugal were the ones racing towards their goalkeeper and Costa was the hero.

“Yes, it was probably the best game of my life — it was certainly the one where I was most useful to my team,” was the 24-year-old Porto goalkeeper’s assessment when asked by reporters in the post-match media conference to rank his display in Frankfurt on Monday.

Nobody had ever saved three penalties in a row in a European Championship before, just as nobody had ever not conceded in a shootout at the Euros before.

When asked if he knew which way Slovenia’s penalty-takers would shoot, he said: “No, we analysed the penalty-takers, of course, but players are substituted and they also change the way they shoot. I went with my gut.

“The important thing is the work you put in and then trusting yourself. I believe in the hard work I do. Work, work, work. That comes first and sometimes you reap the fruits.”

A little later, it was pointed out to Portugal manager Roberto Martinez that the night before Oblak helped Atletico past Inter, Costa failed to stop any of Arsenal’s spot kicks in their Champions League last-16 game, which meant Porto went out and the Londoners progressed.

“Diogo is on form,” said Martinez. “His experience against Arsenal was very important, but he went with his feeling here.

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Martinez and Diogo Costa embrace (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

“He is an amazing goalkeeper. He’s a well-kept secret in Portugal. I’ve worked with some very good goalkeepers and he’s up there with the best. The maturity and experience he has now means we really get to benefit from his performances.”

Well, the secret is out now.

But it is not a secret that requires much uncovering. Costa has now saved 13 of the 42 penalties he has faced — almost one in three — and it was only two years ago that he saved three penalties in a row across three Champions League games. Nobody had ever saved three non-shootout penalties in a Champions League season before.

The saves he made here were all at full stretch with two hands. These were not terrible penalties, particularly the first from Ilicic. Gettable heights, perhaps, but they were hit hard and close to the posts.

“His patience, timing, and explosiveness were what stood out,” explains The Athletic’s goalkeeping expert Matt Pyzdrowski, a coach and former goalkeeper who played in Sweden and the United States.

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“The way he virtually waited until the striker made impact with the ball before he made his move was absolutely perfect.

“Also, the fact that despite how long he waited, he was still able to cover the corners of his goal with both hands was special and not something just any goalkeeper could do. That’s down to his athleticism and explosiveness.

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“It almost appeared that he telepathically knew beforehand exactly where the striker was going to go. It was a hell of a performance.

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“His composure was also really good. No big dramatic movements or distraction techniques before the players struck the ball. He just waited patiently in goal and focused on getting the timing of his dives spot on.”

And while he had spent most of the game watching the Oblak show at the other end, Costa made probably the best non-penalty save of the match, too, when he stuck out his left foot to deny Benjamin Sesko in a one-on-one in the 115th minute.

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Costa stops Sesko in a one-on-one after Pepe’s slip-up (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

“First of all, I thought, ‘I’ve got to stop this’,” was Costa’s matter-of-fact explanation when quizzed after the match. “I tried to read his body language and thankfully I managed to help the team. That’s my job.”

Whether it has been under the international radar or not, Costa has been doing this job for some time.

Iker Casillas, the former Spain and Real Madrid great who finished his club career with Porto, was telling people six years ago that Costa would be his successor… and perhaps not just at Porto.

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“There is a star coming through,” Casillas said in 2018. “He’s called Diogo Costa. I think he’s going to be a superb goalkeeper.”

We think you are right, Iker.

“Diogo! Diogo!” we called when Costa had finished talking to us, as he left his player-of-the-match trophy on stage in the media conference room.

“Ah,” he said, laughing, “winning is important.”

It was the first thing he let through his hands all night.

(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)





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