Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

Antoine Griezmann and Eden Hazard: Barcelona and Real Madrid's defining summer signings set to shape La Liga season

As the new Spanish season fast approaches, Ian Hawkey looks at the two biggest signings by the league's two biggest clubs

The courtships were lengthy and occasionally problematic. The expectations for these marriages are all the higher for the waiting.

Antoine Griezmann was all but betrothed to Barcelona more than year before he actually joined. Eden Hazard and Real Madrid have been sounding one another out for even longer.

In many respects, the two mightiest clubs in Spain have put quite similar footballers at the centre of their strategy for this season’s renewal. Hazard and Griezmann will both turn 29 in the course of the campaign, an age for where the modern attacking footballer might be reaching his peak, provided his game does not depend too heavily on speed in the sprint. Hazard and Griezmann have that and plenty more besides.

They are worldly players, too, with a decade of experience behind them in leading leagues, Hazard in France and mainly in England, Griezmann from two clubs in Spain.

Neither, though, is exactly over-sated in terms of trophies. Hence the desire on both their parts to move in what they see as an upward direction. Hazard’s last medal was the Europa League, in May, his second of those in his seven years at Chelsea. The last Cup Griezmann lifted with Atletico Madrid was the same trophy, in 2018.

Griezmann has won the World Cup with his country, but never the Uefa Champions League, in which he lost a final. Nor Hazard, for whom it seems a very long time since he confirmed, in the summer of 2012, that he would be joining “the European champions”, as Chelsea then were.

That announcement put an end to speculation about which major club had won the race to snap up the gifted Belgian from Lille. Hazard went on to delight Stamford Bridge, but never carried his Blues as far as a Champions League final.

His brilliance at the Bridge, and his consistency - give or take some disagreements about his role or how some of his managers interpreted it - and the low-key, almost benevolent way Hazard goes about things mean he will be cheered, generously, when the time comes to return to Chelsea, very possibly wearing Madrid’s colours.

He knew Madrid wanted him for most of his Chelsea career; he never disguised his long cherished dream of playing at some stage in La Liga. But these were truths he seldom amplified or slyly tried to disguise.

The case of Griezmann, Atletico and Barcelona is distinct. Ahead of Barcelona’s trip to Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium, on the first weekend of December, the French striker will brace himself for scorn. He may have been, like Hazard at Chelsea, Atletico’s standout attacking player for the last four years, cherished for most of that period, but his choosing decision to join a direct Liga rival has soured that legacy. Not only that, but it follows his drawn-out indecision about the move, too.

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Fourteen months ago, when the interest of Barcelona in Griezmann was being all but broadcast by loud-hailer, Griezmann produced and put online a long video, expertly shot and edited, and unashamedly self-regarding. Its punchline was surprising: he had decided to remain with Atletico, who - in news not reported in "The Decision", as Griezmann named his film - had in turn agreed that a lower buyout clause for him could be triggered a year later, in July 2019.

That background has inflamed relations between Barca, whom Atletico maintain were in contract with Griezmann ahead of the time they could activate the €120 million (Dh493m) release fee, infringing regulations. It also bears on the attitude of Barcelona loyalists towards the new recruit: Griezmann said ‘No’ to Barca last year, and, with his film, did so very publicly. He will now need to win over some sceptics in Catalonia.

He will also need to pass the standard test of any star striker coming to Camp Nou, which is to show his complicity, his effective interaction with the peerless Lionel Messi, once Messi returns to fitness after his recent lay-off.

Luis Suarez did that superbly and Suarez is still there in the forward line. But fine footballers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic have found tactical accommodation with Messi not a luxury but something taxing.

For Hazard, Madrid presents almost the opposite challenge. His new club have, at least in theory, set out their plans around him, signing an energetic left-back - Ferland Mendy - to provide cover behind him on Hazard’s favoured flank, and a centre-forward, Luka Jovic, of the type Hazard likes to partner.

But Madrid have also heaped expectations on Hazard, as the magician to lift them from the trough of last season, when they gave up their three-year grip on the Champions League, and finished third, 19 points behind Barcelona, in La Liga - not to mention eight shy of an Atletico now determined to show they can cope very well without Griezmann.

Updated: August 14, 2019 12:14 PM

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