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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Uefa Super Cup: Atletico Madrid shaping up better than post-Ronaldo Real Madrid

A record club outlay ensures Simeone's side look well-equipped heading into new season while the European champions appear to be finding their feet after the Portuguese's departure

Antoine Griezmann will lead Atletico Madrid this season after rejecting the chance to join Barcelona. AFP
Antoine Griezmann will lead Atletico Madrid this season after rejecting the chance to join Barcelona. AFP

How do you replace a figurehead like Cristiano Ronaldo? The first answer, of course, is that you cannot. But there are other responses to the question, most of them ones Real Madrid are still trying to formulate, as they begin their first competitive season for nine years without their talisman.

The European champions’ immediate hope is that, over the course of the Uefa Super Cup in Tallinn against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night, Real are not presented with too much evidence that the nearest equivalent to another Ronaldo is the coveted striker who is Atletico’s most prized playing asset.

Antoine Griezmann may not start Wednesday evening’s showpiece, because he has had the kind of busy summer spearheading France’s World Cup victory, but he will influence the nine months ahead.

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Real coveted Griezmann for a long period; Barcelona thought they had him all but committed to them until June, when he announced, to widespread surprise, he would be staying with Europa League winners Atletico.

Atletico now have ambitions to repeat their 2014 Primera Liga title and to go one better than the two Uefa Champions League finals of 2014 and 2016. Indeed, manager Diego Simeone has been emphatically supported by investment in high-pedigree personnel.

While Real have sold Ronaldo, scorer of 451 goals, to Juventus and were left stunned after serially successful head coach, Zinedine Zidane, stepped down after a third successive European Cup, Atletico have shown a dexterity in resisting departure.

There's their head coach, for one. Simeone, appointed in late 2011, is now the longest-serving manager at any club that has been part of Europe’s leading five top divisions through that time.

There's Griezmann, and in his wake, there was the contract extension signed by Diego Godin, the central defender in whom Manchester United indicated strong interest. Jan Oblak, the much-admired goalkeeper, is reported to have rejected at least one alternative employer ready to pay his €100 million (Dh418.8m) buyout clause, this summer.

Add to that formidable spine a club-record outlay on new players, including another French World Cup winner, Thomas Lemar, at around €70m from Monaco; the exciting Portugal winger Gelson Martins; the 22-year-old Spain midfielder, Rodri and a back-up centre-forward, Nikola Kalinic, signed from AC Milan.

Simeone embarks on the season with what is widely described as the best Atletico squad in the club’s history. Simeone regards that as merely a platform.

“We have a new group with a lot of fresh arrivals, who will each need to adapt,” the Argentine said. “That will take time. We have also seen some leaders leave the dressing-room so others must now step up.”

The major departures are significant, though in no way as seismic as the leaving of Real by Ronaldo. Gabi, Atletico’s former captain, had been Simeone’s long-time lieutenant on the pitch before his summer move, at 35, to Qatari football. Fernando Torres, 34, a former captain and club great, has taken on a new challenge in Japan.

Have they waved goodbye to the strongest Atletico ever? Simeone is cautious.

“What you can’t say is just because you have some big names you have a great team. It’s the strength of the group that makes a strong squad,” he said, aware that how he manages a set of players whose qualities hint at an evolution in style, perhaps with more possession of the ball, will be scrutinised.

Head to head, the Spanish capital’s second wealthiest club certainly seem to measure up boldly against the first.

With a forward line of, say, Griezmann, Diego Costa and Lemar, Atletico have two newly crowned world champions and the striker who led Spain’s line at the World Cup.

Real, post-Ronaldo, keep fingers crossed that Gareth Bale, the striker whose country, Wales, did not make it to the World Cup, stays fit, that Karim Benzema, the striker France do not pick, finds form, and that Marco Asensio, a substitute, generally, for Spain, matures to make the best use of his range of assets.

There’s also a new goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois - who spent three years as a Chelsea loanee at Atletico - to accommodate, and a new head coach, Julen Lopetegui, whose appointment was contentious, in a number of ways.

Lopetegui replaces the Zidane Real tried to persuade to remain; he was not first choice and he was sacked from his last job, with Spain two days before the World Cup once his intention to join Real was known.

In Tallinn on Wednesday night, it is the Europa League holders, not the Champions League masters, who seem to be carrying the best blueprint for the immediate future.