Coherency key for active Atletico Madrid as they challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for La Liga title

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A revolving door in perpetual motion.

This has been the bold approach utilised by Atletico Madrid in the summer’s transfer market. Of 2018/19’s first-choice XI, less than half will be present for Sunday’s La Liga opener against over-achieving neighbours Getafe.

Real Madrid’s vaunted reset under Zinedine Zidane has been – admittedly, to the Frenchman’s chagrin – nowhere near as thorough. The prospect of Neymar’s comeback looms over La Liga champions Barcelona’s business, which, to date, is led by just Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong and ex-Atleti forward Antoine Griezmann.

Tumult and titles rarely coexist in football. This assertion should spell doom for Los Rojiblancos hopes of a first top-flight crown since 2013/14.

Yet the consistency and clarity of vision by the club’s decision makers shines through, even at such startling volume. Characteristics that cannot be so aptly applied to El Clasico rivals.

It is why belief in tangible success is burgeoning at Wanda Metropolitano, not waning.

The triumvirate of head coach Diego Simeone, sporting director Andrea Berta and CEO Miguel Angel Gil Marin have overseen a €261 million recruitment drive. Some reaction to March’s Champions League capitulation at Juventus that spelled the definitive end of an indefatigable era.

The figure will balloon past the €300m mark if a stalled deal for Valencia and Spain forward Rodrigo stutters back into life before September 2’s deadline.

The exhaustively re-cast squad is now defined by the likes of emergent €126m Portugal talent Joao Felix, rising Spain centre-back Mario Hermoso, England’s World Cup 2018 right-back Kieran Trippier and Porto freebie Hector Herrera.

The Los Rojiblancos hierarchy, however, are not spendthrifts. This unprecedented spree on nine additions has been paid for by substantial sales of €307.5m.

France pair Antoine Griezmann and Lucas Hernandez went for a combined €200m, while Manchester City’s matching of emerging Spain anchor man Rodri’s release clause made an unwelcome exit inevitable. Also gone are beloved free agents Diego Godin and Juanfran – veterans of multiple Champions League and Europa League finals.

This churn is, superficially, redolent of the chaos inherent to Spanish top flight’s financially starved lower reaches. It certainly stands in contrast to Clasico kings Madrid and Barcelona, who at the time of writing look to have each purchased four guaranteed first-team-ready footballers each.

But Atleti have been methodical – and methodological – at every turn. This cannot be said for the aforementioned enriched duo.

Trippier is a visionary substitution for Juanfran, while Atletico Paranaense’s 21-year-old left-back Renan Lodi comes in for fellow Brazilian Filipe Luis. Porto’s Felipe and Espanyol’s Hermoso fill the gaps at centre-back left by the Hernandez and the lionised Godin, while both Herrera and Madrid’s Marcos Llorente step in for Rodri.

This summer’s enduring legacy, however, could come in the fortunes of Griezmann and enlivening replacement Felix.

The teen idol’s iridescent pre-season form has included goals against Madrid, Juventus and MLS All-Stars. At 19-years old, a staggering rise that began in earnest last October at Benfica shows no signs of abating.

An anonymous Griezmann’s contribution to Barca’s eyebrow-raising 1-0 La Liga defeat at Athletic Bilbao was three off-target attempts, one key pass and just 33 touches. The 28-year-old’s 15 goals in 2018/19 was his worst top-flight output since 2012/13, with Real Sociedad.

Barca’s complications do not end there.

The horse-trading about Neymar looked to have disturbed fragile France winger Ousmane Dembele at San Mames. He’s now either an interchangeable commodity with Paris Saint-Germain, or set for an unwanted spell on the sidelines.

The same uncertainty impacts Portugal right-back Nelson Semedo and Croatia centre midfielder Ivan Rakitic.

This is all without discussing the continuing disquiet that surrounds head coach Ernesto Valverde.

Plentiful unease can further be detected at Santiago Bernabeu.

March’s return of Zidane – a winner of nine major trophies from January 2016-May 2018 – was caveated on extensive alterations to the roster.

With a fortnight left in the transfer market, however, expensive deadwood such as Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez and maligned Wales forward Gareth Bale remain.

A failure to prise France’s Paul Pogba from Manchester United has denied the flimsy centre midfield of a necessary power surge. Their already abysmal pre-season – two wins from seven friendlies, with 18 goals conceded – plunged new depths before Saturday’s La Liga clash at Celta Vigo when news broke that new €100m Belgium winger Eden Hazard had picked up a thigh injury in training.

Atletico’s ambitious plans are not without issue. Initial teething problems when the competitive actions gets under way are, surely, assured. But coherence – not shared by their greatest rivals – defines a sage succession plan.

Simeone’s latest conscripts are ready for action.

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Ernesto Valverde demands more from Antoine Griezmann after Athletic Bilbao stun Barcelona

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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde has called on Antoine Griezmann to be more involved in games after the Catalan giants were beaten 1-0 by Athletic Bilbao in their La Liga opener.

Griezmann joined Barca from Atletico Madrid for 120 million euros over the summer and was handed his debut at San Mames on Friday.

However, he struggled to make an impact on the left of a front three in the first half and did not fare much better when an injury to Luis Suarez saw him shifted into a more central role.

“If he is close to the box he can finish, he moves well, but you have to dominate the game for that to happen,” Valverde said in quotes reported by Sport.

“Putting him on the left, we knew that he will look for goal, but we have a left-back and players who can take the game.

“(However), we expect a lot from all the players and he has to look to get in the game more.”

Barca were without star man Lionel Messi, who is recovering from a calf injury.

“We’re not all like him and we have to learn to cope when he’s not there,” Valverde continued. “It’s inevitable to miss him, but we need to do other things too. We have to transform possession into goal chances, that’s what counts.”

On the injury to Suarez, who hit the woodwork with Barca’s best chance before being forced off late in the first half, Valverde added: “Luis has a problem with the calf and his injury set us back because in the second half we spent a lot of time in Athletic’s box and lacked finishers there.”

Bilbao’s winner came courtesy of a spectacular overhead kick from 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz in the 89th minute, with the veteran forward – who will retire at the end of the season – having only been on the field for a minute.

“Everything in life has a start and a finish,” he said of his impending retirement, as quoted by AS. “I’m grateful to be able to choose to end things where I’m happiest.

“(The goal) is dedicated to my family and everyone who supports me. These kind of things make football so beautiful.”

Provided by Press Association Sport 

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Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Barcelona: Talking points as Luis Suarez joins Lionel Messi on sidelines

Andy West 17/08/2019
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Reigning champions Barcelona opened their La Liga campaign with a 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao in stunning circumstances on Friday night.

Barca were second-best in the first half and needed a trio of saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but also hit the woodwork twice through Luis Suarez – who then departed through injury – and his replacement Rafinha.

The second half was a cagier affair with few clear chances at either end, and the game appeared to be heading harmlessly towards a goalless draw until, with two minutes left, a piece of magic happened…and that’s the only way to start our review of the action.

Aduriz gives La Liga a flying start

After two seasons of Barcelona waltzing to the title by March, this was exactly the result neutrals needed to give the new campaign a flying start and spark hope that this season’s title race will be far more competitive.

And the nature of the winning goal could not have been more romantic or dramatic, as Athletic legend Aritz Aduriz came off the bench and, with his very first touch, rifled home a stunning overhead volley from close to the edge of the box to give Marc-Andre ter Stegen no chance.

It was a genuine contender for goal of the season on the very first day of the season, made even more remarkable for the fact that Aduriz is 38 years old and is far better known for powerful headers than flying acrobatics.

The Athletic legend, who is entering into his 11th campaign with the club over two separate spells, has already announced that he will retire at the end of the season and he will probably only play a bit-part role from the bench in the coming months. But even if he does nothing else before retiring, this moment of sheer brilliance is enough to ensure he will never be forgotten by Athletic fans – and it will also have been celebrated wildly by supporters of Real and Atletico Madrid. The title race is on!

Aduriz winner

Midfield conundrum for Valverde

The teamsheets contained a surprise with Barca boss Ernesto Valverde leaving stalwart midfielders Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic on the bench, instead selecting Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena to play alongside new signing Frenkie De Jong.

With Busquets and Rakitic both in their 30s, that selection was a look to the future and perhaps an indication of how Valverde would like his team to evolve over the coming campaign, but it was not a successful move and the Barca coach quickly abandoned the new policy with the half-time introduction of Rakitic in place of Alena.

The visitors were much more comfortable after the break, with Rakitic sitting deeper, next to De Jong, and helping his team dictate play. In fact, the team shape was a clear 4-2-3-1, with Rakitic and De Jong forming a double-pivot, impressive sub Rafinha on the right of attack, Ousmane Dembele on the left and Sergi Roberto through the middle in support of Antoine Griezmann.

And although the personnel will greatly change in due course, perhaps that is the formation Valverde is planning to become his template this season: Lionel Messi supporting Luis Suarez in the middle, Griezmann on the right and, on the left…a certain Neymar?

Frenkie de Jong

Suarez and Messi sidelined for must-win contest?

Barca’s opening day loss will certainly unload a barrage of criticism upon Valverde, who has been left with very little credit in the bank after his team’s consecutive Champions League collapses in the last two seasons.

Following the debacle at Anfield in May, it was inevitable that Valverde would come under the hammer as soon as his team suffered a setback in the new campaign. Worryingly for the Barca boss, not only has that time has come at the very start of the season, but it has also coincided with the absence of his two key attacking players, Messi and Suarez.

The former was absent from kick-off, left back in Barcelona after suffering a calf injury in training a couple of weeks ago. And Suarez joined him on the sidelines before the break, also suffering a calf injury which will be fully assessed on Saturday.

There is, then, a real chance that Valverde will be without both Messi and Suarez for a game which has become an absolute must-win encounter: next Sunday’s home meeting with Real Betis. A narrow slip-up in a tough road encounter will be swiftly forgotten if it is followed by a resounding home win, but it would leave Valverde under enormous pressure if points are dropped against Betis next weekend.

Messi, surely, will do everything to get back in time for the game. And Valverde will need him more than ever.

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