Not since 2014, when Diego Godin’s header completed a famous title triumph, have Atletico Madrid faced such a crucial match at the Camp Nou. Victory over Barcelona on Sunday will take Diego Simeone’s side to within two points of the La Liga pace-setters. It would signify that against all odds, an unlikely title race has been sparked in Spain.
Unlikely because, not so long ago, Barca looked set to clinch a third league title in four years while barely breaking a sweat. Ernesto Valverde’s side are yet to suffer defeat in La Liga this season, holding an astonishing 15-point lead over rivals and defending champions Real Madrid. But despite all this, Atletico Madrid have reeled them in.
Simeone’s side have won eight straight games in all competitions, scoring nine times in their last two outings. Atleti have found their groove and much of that is down to the combined form of Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann. The latter, in particular, is in the midst of a hot streak, netting three times against Sevilla last weekend and four times against Leganes in midweek.
Indeed, Griezmann looks back to his best. The Frenchman has struggled for much of the season, with some of his own fans even booing him at times earlier in the campaign. But Griezmann has been a driving force behind Atletico’s recent resurgence, scoring more in his last 10 games than he did in the first half of the season.
This form has coincided with reports linking Griezmann with a summer move to Barcelona. Speculation had dissipated since the close of the January transfer window, when some Spanish newspapers had claimed a deal to be signed, sealed and delivered, but the rumour mill has again started churning out conjecture concerning the future of the Frenchman.
A few months ago, Atletico Madrid would have happily sold Griezmann for the €100 million fee written into the forward’s contract as a release clause, but now that might leave the capital club shortchanged. For the first time in years, there is a balance to Atleti and the purest manifestation of that newfound balance can be found in the final third of the pitch.
The return of Costa has been a catalyst for Atletico Madrid. Used as a foil for Griezmann, the Spanish international is drawing the best out of his teammates, with Simeone deploying him as a battering ram to free up space for others. The ploy has worked. Costa has three Liga goals to his name, but his contribution cannot be quantified so simplistically.
So given the influence and importance of Costa in this team, could they do without Griezmann? After all, many top-class forwards have come and gone at Atletico Madrid over the years and they always find a way to compensate for such losses. So would a replacement be easily found for Griezmann in the same way a replacement was found for Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and initially Costa himself?
In Costa and Griezmann, Atletico Madrid have two players who embody Simeone’s philosophy from either side of the spectrum. The former represents the physical side of what the Argentine professes, while the latter exemplifies the movement and energy of his ideology. They are the perfect Simeone attacking duo. He couldn’t find two players who suit his team better.
And therein would lie the problem in finding a replacement for Griezmann, should it come to that. It wouldn’t just be a case of replacing the Frenchman, but finding someone who would dovetail so naturally with Costa. It could be argued that the duo are the most well-suited attacking pair in the European game right now. Splitting that up would have a profound impact on an Atleti team that has only just found a way to harness them.
A win at the Camp Nou on Sunday would provide the perfect illustration of where Atletico Madrid are as a team at the moment. Their resurgence has caught many by surprise, particularly after their early season struggles with the transfer embargo and the move to a new stadium. But while Atleti’s success is down to their strength as a unit, it is through the form of individuals – like Costa and Griezmann – that they are pulling in Barca.