Atletico star seeks end to ‘nearly man’ tag

New Straits Times - - Sport -

PRO­PELLED by an on-fire An­toine Griez­mann, Atletico Madrid stand on the brink of a fourth con­sec­u­tive Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal, de­ter­mined to fi­nally end their tag as Europe’s nearly men.

Griez­mann has ex­pe­ri­enced that feel­ing more than most.

In 2016, the French­man proved him­self as one of world foot­ball’s most deadly for­wards, but also missed out in ag­o­nis­ing fash­ion in the Cham­pi­ons League and Euro 2016 fi­nals, as well as fin­ish­ing third be­hind Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Lionel Messi for the Bal­lon d’Or.

Bur­dened by that dis­ap­point­ment and the phys­i­cal and men­tal fa­tigue of car­ry­ing France to the fi­nal of Euro 2016 on home soil, Griez­mann’s form tailed off as he failed to score a league goal be­tween Oc­to­ber and Jan­uary.

How­ever, the new year has seen Griez­mann, and as a con­se­quence Atletico’s form, re­vi­talised with the 25-year-old scor­ing 12 of his 21 goals this sea­son in 2017.

Once again un­der the tute­lage of Diego ‘Cholo’ Sime­one, Atletico are com­ing good at the right time of the cam­paign to launch an­other bid for a first ever Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle.

Bayer Lev­erkusen will need to launch a come­back of Barcelona pro­por­tions when they visit the Vi­cente Calderon to­day need­ing to over­come a 4-2 first-leg de­feat at home three weeks ago.

The es­teem with which Griez­mann holds Sime­one was key to him re­main­ing at the Calderon last sum­mer and why he says he will stay when Atletico move into the new 67,000-ca­pac­ity Wanda Metropoli­tano next sea­son de­spite ru­mours Manch­ester United are will­ing to pay the €100 mil­lion (RM473 mil­lion) re­lease clause in his con­tract.

“Sime­one is the one who has made me take the leap I needed. I was promis­ing but in three years, Cholo has helped me take the leap to in 2016 be among the three best play­ers in the world,” Griez­mann told Tele­vi­sion Es­panola this week.

“To take that leap, Sime­one is the best coach I could pos­si­bly have had.

“The weather helps a lot, my team­mates are amongst the best and I have a top coach, so I am very happy here and there is no rea­son to leave.”

To put the scale of Sime­one’s achieve­ments at Atletico into con­text, Los Ro­ji­blan­cos had only reached five Euro­pean Cup quar­ter-fi­nals in their his­tory be­fore the Ar­gen­tine took over in De­cem­ber 2011.

How­ever, get­ting so close to glory and fall­ing at the fi­nal hur­dle has been all the more painful for Atletico and Sime­one, espe­cially as they have lost to cross­c­ity ri­vals Real Madrid for the past three sea­sons in the Cham­pi­ons League, twice in the fi­nal.

Atletico are the only club to ever lose three Euro­pean Cup fi­nals with­out win­ning the tro­phy.

And Griez­mann, who missed a penalty in last sea­son’s fi­nal, be­lieves he and Sime­one have un­fin­ished busi­ness with the Cham­pi­ons League be­fore they look to pas­tures new.

“He likes it here, he sees in us a squad that has more to give and he does as well,” added Griez­mann. “He wants to go very far in Cham­pi­ons and La Liga and soon we will have a new sta­dium. I am sure he will con­tinue with us.”

My team­mates are amongst the best and I have a top coach, so I am very happy here and there is no rea­son to leave.


Atletico Madrid striker

An­toine Griez­mann has scored 21 goals for Atletico Madrid this sea­son.

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