Antoine Griezmann set to lead Atletico in bid to be Madrid’s top dogs

Antoine Griezmann has been boosted by France's world Cup triumph. Picture: Getty.
Antoine Griezmann has been boosted by France's world Cup triumph. Picture: Getty.
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus has left a gaping hole at Real Madrid and in the Spanish league. How will Madrid ever replace the forward who scored an average of 50 goals per season for nine straight years? The answer, of course, is that they won’t.

The only player capable of a similar impact is the longtime leader of Real’s biggest rivals. So Ronaldo’s departure appears to have given Barcelona free rein to increase their almost perennial hold on the Spanish league title.

But it also gives Antoine Griezmann, boosted by France’s World Cup victory, an excellent opportunity to make Atletico Madrid the Spanish capital’s top team.

Despite its revenue disparity with the Premier League, the Spanish league has offered the greatest two-man duel in world football for nearly a decade. Constantly being compared and measured against one another, Lionel Messi and Ronaldo pushed each other to ever greater heights, each earning five Ballon d’Or awards.

Now Messi, Barcelona and the Spanish league face the pair of “clasico” matches without Ronaldo dressed in white.

Madrid’s loss should be Barcelona’s gain, making the team the clear favourites to retain their La Liga title even after midfield great Andres Iniesta left for Japan and Paulinho returned to the Chinese league.

Barcelona have brought in midfielders Arturo Vidal and Arthur, defender Clement Lenglet, and winger Malcom, and will look to give more of a leading role to Philippe Coutinho as the playmaker for Messi and Luis Suarez.

Ronaldo’s departure leaves Real without their all-time leading scorer – 451 goals in 438 matches – and the main engine behind their run of three straight Champions League titles. So it will be hard to adjust to life after Ronaldo for the fans at the Bernabeu, who at times harshly jeered the Portugal forward but will surely miss his spectacular performances.

If losing the best player in club history wasn’t enough, Real also lost coach Zinedine Zidane, who quit after the team won their record-extending 13th European Cup in 
May.

Julen Lopetegui has replaced Zidane, having been fired from Spain’s national team two days before their World Cup opener for having negotiated his contract with Madrid behind the back of the Spanish soccer federation.

As for not having Ronaldo to count on, Lopetegui said: “As a coach, it is a thrilling challenge to build a competitive team without Cristiano.”

Gareth Bale, who at times struggled to make Zidane’s starting line-up, now has a chance to become Madrid’s focal point in attack. Midfielders Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and 22-year-old Marco Asensio should also play more consistently. “We are convinced that Bale will have a great year and we are expecting a lot from him,” Lopetegui said.

Real president Florentino Perez has held off on a blockbuster move to replace Ronaldo. Instead, the club focused on the future by signing right-back Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad and a pair of Brazilian teenagers in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. The club also added Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who will be competing for the starting position with Keylor Navas.

With Real entering an uncertain period, could Atletico seize the moment and become Barcelona’s most dangerous challengers? They appear to sense the moment has arrived.

The club, which won the 2014 Spanish league title, will hope to benefit from the boost in confidence that Griezmann received from winning the World Cup with France only a few weeks after the forward led Atletico to the Europa League title.

His decision to reject an offer by Barcelona and remain as Atletico’s top player has been followed by the club signing wingers Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins. The club also snatched 22-year-old defensive midfielder Rodrigo “Rodri” Hernandez from Villarreal, and added Croatia forward Nikola Kalinic from AC Milan.