Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid: Has Simeone lost his last big chance for success?

With trophies looking out of reach and big stars eyeing exits, Atletico Madrid's immediate future no longer looks so promising.

Lionel Messi has scored a La Liga-high 32 goals this season and 42 in all competitions.   -  Getty Images

Cringeworthy as it was for many viewers, Antoine Griezmann's 'The Decision' could still prove to be a landmark moment in Atletico Madrid's modern history. But not the one it expected. 

The blockbuster, made in association with Gerard Pique’s production company and premiered to millions last year, saw Griezmann oh-so-dramatically agonise over his future before confirming he would be rejecting Barcelona to stay at Atletico. 

As La Liga's top two prepare to meet at Camp Nou on Saturday, Griezmann would hope to be getting ready for a decisive fixture, a chance to vindicate his choice and fire Atleti towards a first league triumph since 2013-14. In reality, with the gap standing at eight points, even a victory for the visitor looks unlikely to stop Barca securing a fourth title in five years. 

With the Copa del Rey and Champions League gone, too, Atleti is staring at a barren end to the season. Moreover, and more worryingly, there is a growing sense that 2018-19 has been one big missed opportunity, and perhaps the last it will have for a considerable time.

GRIEZMANN'S BUYER'S REMORSE

There was a point at Luzhniki Stadium last July, after the final whistle and before the trophy ceremony, when the World Cup final highlights were played on the big screens. 

While some France players danced in front of fans, Griezmann stood watching the replay of his man-of-the-match performance, hands pressed to his mouth, an irrepressible grin on his face. It was a poignant moment of childlike awe, as Griezmann the global superstar gave way to Antoine the boy from Macon, barely able to believe he had just won the biggest prize of all.

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Antoine Griezmann celebrates with the World Cup trophy following France's victory against Croatia.   -  Getty Images

 

Last year was probably the best in Griezmann's career. Starring roles in the Europa League and World Cup, plus a UEFA Super Cup win over Real Madrid, gave him three trophies and a genuine shot at the Ballon d'Or. When he asked, "what else do I have to do?" after finishing third in the voting behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric, few disagreed. 

One thing his performances did earn him, though, was a new five-year Atleti contract. Having publicly deliberated over his future, the forward committed to a deal that, according to L'Equipe, has helped to make him the highest-earning French sportsman in the world. It was a mutual declaration of trust: Griezmann challenged the club to show enough ambition to keep its best players, and Atleti in turn made its standard-bearer's future safe.

 

Or so it thought. Less than a year on, Griezmann's head has apparently been turned once more. There are suggestions he regrets his decision to stay and, although his sister has denied any recent contact with Barcelona, nobody from the Griezmann camp has yet dismissed the claims that he is unsure of his future. It is also thought that, as per the deal signed last year, his release clause will drop from €200 million to €120 million after this season, making him a more realistic prospect for Barca, or indeed Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. 

Will Atleti go out of its way to convince him to stay this time? That, too, is unclear. Griezmann has scored 13 goals in 30 league games this season, having hit 19 in 32 last term. He was powerless to prevent it crashing to a 3-0 loss to Juventus that saw it exit the Champions League with a 3-2 aggregate defeat. He has been good, sometimes very good, but, for the highest-paid member of France's World Cup winners, perhaps not quite good enough.

ATLETI COULD BE LOSING HEART AND SAUL

Beyond the problem of Griezmann's future, Atleti fans must be starting to fear that Diego Simeone's carefully constructed squad is at risk of being picked apart. 

Lucas Hernandez was close to joining Bayern Munich a year ago and the Bundesliga giant returned with another offer that has proved too good to ignore - €80 million, in fact, to match his release clause. His impending exit is said to have unsettled some of the club's senior stars, including Griezmann. 

There is also the problem of Saul Niguez. The man who signed a nine-year contract in July 2017, who said, "At Atletico, we are a family and there is no better place to be," has apparently grown restless.

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Lucas Hernandez (L) is moving to Bayern Munich in the summer and Saul Niguez is expected to follow him out of the club.

 

Talk of a rift between Saul and Simeone has even led to speculation that Atleti might accept an offer of less than his €150 million release clause, as Manchester City and Manchester United monitor the situation.

Add to that the expected departure of veteran defender Diego Godin to Inter, the possible exit of Filipe Luis, the struggle for form of Diego Costa and the continued anxiety over whether Jan Oblak might be stolen away, and we are talking about seven possible transfers that would rip the heart out of Simeone's set-up and leave it in need of a substantial rebuild, which would make challenging for La Liga and the Champions League next year seem nigh-on impossible. 

IS SIMEONE'S MAGIC WANDA WEAKENING?

Like Griezmann, Simeone has agonised before over his Atletico future. Like Griezmann, he has so far always decided he is in the right place. 

A man who has presided over its greatest modern period, a winner of seven major trophies and twice a Champions League finalist, Simeone has been the basis of Atleti's planning. In tandem with the fearsome yet unflinchingly optimistic Mono Burgos, football's answer to Rubeus Hagrid (at least until he shaved his beard off), Simeone has weaved his magic to transform Atleti's fortunes. But is the spell wearing off? 

This season looked like its best chance of conquering Spain and Europe together, at least since the dramatic final weeks of 2013-14, when a draw with Barca gave it the league title and only Sergio Ramos' proclivity for an injury-time storyline denied it the Champions League.

 

This term, with Barca not always firing on all cylinders and Madrid in disarray, Atleti had the trophies in its sights. After a Copa shock against Girona, a collapse in Turin and three league defeats in seven games, it was left looking at little more than Blaugrana coattails. 

Simeone signed a lucrative new three-year contract in February because, he said, "I see work, I see people involved to continue growing, I see hope, I see youth that can progress to the first team level. If all four legs remain firm we will continue on the same path: fans, leaders, players and the coach." 

The players, it seems, might not be staying "firm" for much longer. Simeone came close to walking away after the Champions League final loss in 2016 and, after another season of disappointment, he might think his time is finally up, too.

That would be two of four legs gone, leaving the club on its knees.