For the first time in nine years, there is a void where Lionel Messi’s greatest rival for the title of LaLiga’s best player once stood and, in theory, Antoine Griezmann should be the one to step up and fill it.
The France star could easily have been playing alongside Messi at Barcelona had things gone a little differently in pre-season, but instead he will line up against Real Madrid for Atletico on Saturday.
After months of flirting with Barca – even going as far as reaching an agreement with them, depending on who you believe – Griezmann published a video on June 14 documenting his inner conflict, as he tussled with the idea of ditching the Wanda Metropolitano for Camp Nou.
The film concluded with Griezmann announcing his decision to stay in Madrid, having had Barca, Atletico and the fans of both hanging on his every word.
It was the kind of contrived publicity stunt one would expect from the Cristiano Ronaldo PR machine, yet, there seemed to be far less obvious self-indulgence and narcissism on display during his shock move to Juventus from Madrid the following month.
Griezmann’s contract extension with Atletico saw him overtake Ronaldo as the second-highest paid player in LaLiga, with the Frenchman now reported to be on €385,000 per week, approximately €160,000 more than his previous deal.
Few will doubt Griezmann’s ability and importance to Atletico, as he is a goal threat and extremely effective at knitting play together between midfield and attack, as highlighted by the 17 assists he claimed over the past two seasons.
But with such a huge pay increase and new stature within world football, it is not unfair to now expect more, particularly if he is deemed more valuable – in terms of wages – to Atletico than Ronaldo was to Madrid.
After all, in his nine seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu, Ronaldo’s lowest goals haul in LaLiga was 25, while he hit 40 or more three times and regularly chipped in with assists. Griezmann is yet to go beyond 22 goals in a single campaign.
In fairness to Griezmann, Madrid have generally been the superior force of the two clubs over the period in question.
But for arguably the first time in a generation, or longer, Atletico can now legitimately stake a claim to having the greater collection of players. Just securing Champions League qualification or third-place is no longer good enough for Atletico, or for the proud Griezmann.
Kylian Mbappe, Messi and Griezmann were all among those snubbed for FIFA’s controversial The Best award, but the latter was the only one to make a fuss, saying at the time: “The Best bothers me. It’s a FIFA award and there’s no Frenchmen. It’s strange.”
Griezmann later suggested he was targeting this year’s Ballon d’Or, the World Cup winner adamant he has done enough to claim the most coveted individual prize in football.
“Yes, I think about it, especially as I am closer and closer,” he said. “When I finished third in 2016, I lost two finals. This year, I won three [Europa League, World Cup and UEFA Supercup]. It’s not unfair, but I would ask myself what else can I do. I won trophies, I was important in decisive moments, but I don’t vote.”
Sergio Ramos was scathing of those comments, accusing him of “ignorance” and reminding Griezmann that the likes of Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Gianluigi Buffon and Xavi have all won many trophies without ever taking home the Ballon d’Or.
If Griezmann is serious about his Ballon d’Or aims, then he needs to do his talking on the pitch. Trophies are a good start, but is he really on the same level as Ronaldo and Messi?
To win such a prize, a player cannot just be good, or even great – he needs to be truly exceptional. There will never be a better opportunity for Griezmann to prove he can elevate himself and Atletico by walking the walk in the derby.