Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Antoine Griezmann's impending exit puts Atletico Madrid's rebuilding job on a whole new level

Spanish club knew they had a busy summer of recruitment ahead but the departure of their star player could mean a new-look side for next season

Around Atletico Madrid’s new stadium, the Metropolitano, you can trace the history of the club with your footsteps.

There are plaques tiled into the ground dedicated to longer-serving players. It is a noble idea, but it also means easy target-practice for the disgruntled fan. Footballers deemed to have betrayed Atletico sometimes see their plaques have been annotated with graffiti, or worse.

Antoine Griezmann’s tile might pick up a few scratches in the months ahead, though how deep they are depends on where he takes his world-class talents next. The French striker has elected to leave Atletico after five seasons, four of them exhilarating. Ambition is guiding him away.

If he joins a Spanish rival - Paris Saint-Germain have been strongly linked with Griezmann, but Barcelona appears his likeliest destination - there will be anger among Atletico followers and a degree of irritation. It is no secret to most that Griezmann was exploring alternatives for at least two of the three close-seasons of his time as an Atletico player.

Griezmann told the senior executives at the club on Tuesday he wanted activate the buyout clause he negotiated in his last contract - agreed less than a year ago - and move on, in return for €120 million (Dh493.3m), of which Atletico will receive €96m, and Real Sociedad, from whom the Madrid club bought Griezmann in 2014, will gain a welcome €24m.

The club had seen it coming. When Atletico were knocked out of the Uefa Champions League by Juventus at the last-16 stage, shocked after taking a 2-0 first leg lead, a dream faded: the European Cup final is to be staged at the Metropolitano, and Atletico and Griezmann had wanted to be there for that.

Griezmann, a star of France’s 2018 World Cup triumph, was persuaded last July to pursue that objective, and new terms were offered to him by Atletico to keep the interest of Barcelona at bay.

Those included a rise in salary, to some €20m per season, and the new buyout clause that could be activated on July 1, 2019. He was also convinced he would become even more the key creative spark of a team with momentum, surrounded by other inspiring leaders.

One of those leaders, the long-serving manager, Diego Simeone has been the chief accelerator of Griezmann’s career, guiding his development from feathery winger to all-round forward and consistent matchwinner, scorer of 133 Atletico goals in 256 games.

Another, Diego Godin, the granite central defender and Atletico totem for the best part of a decade, is Griezmann’s closest friend, and when Godin last week said his own farewells to the club, to warm, unconditional applause from supporters, it looked like a herald for Griezmann’s departure.

Godin had personally persuaded his buddy, last July, to remain one more year; he could do so less convincingly once he too had decided on a change of scenery. Godin is expected to join Italy’s Inter Milan.

Simeone will miss both, one the pillar of the formidable defence Atletico constructed as the base to reach two Champions League finals, win a Liga title and a Europa League between 2014 and 2018, the other, Griezmann, the masterly spearhead of the counter-attacking style that is Atletico’s default and also the key forward in more a finessed style Simeone has been cultivating.

This pair look major absentees from the next phase of the Simeone era, the story of perhaps the most upwardly mobile club in Europe in the last five years.

A stroll around the stadium’s plaques reminds Atletico fans that fine players go, and, in recent years, the club has still progressed.

Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa all moved on, for ambition, and Torres and Costa later returned to Atletico in the full confidence Simeone’s coaching could maximise their talents and the club satisfy their aspirations.

But the new Griezmann will not be Costa, who, in the last 18 months, in his third spell at Atletico, has offered scant indication he can assume any great portion of Griezmann’s responsibilities.

Other loyalists are probably exiting, too, like the veteran full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis, which, tied to the confirmed sale of Lucas Hernandez, the left-back, to Bayern Munich, leaves Atletico facing a major overhaul even before the club contemplate other issues, like Rodrigo, the central midfielder, who is reliably reported to be of interest to Manchester City.

With the Griezmann fee, and the near-€80m Lucas’s sale to Bayern will bring in, Atletico do have a sizeable budget to recruit replacements. But two or three players of proven pedigree may be needed, more if standards are not to slip as they have over the last nine months.

The last-16 exit from Europe was not the sole setback. The gap between Atletico, who will finish second in La Liga, and the champions, Barca, stands at 11 points with one fixture left.

Ahead of that last game, away at Levante on Saturday, Griezmann has put out a video to say his goodbyes, thanking the club, and the supporters “for all the affection they have given me,” explaining he wanted “new challenges.” The next time he plays at the Metropolitano, he can expect a mixed reception. He may be wise to skirt clear of the plaque with his name on it.

Updated: May 15, 2019 07:07 PM

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