Atletico Madrid’s French forward Antoine Griezmann celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match Club Atletico de Madrid vs RC Celta de Vigo at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid on February 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / CURTO DE LA TORRE
Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann goes up against Barcelona on Sunday, looking to derail the title charge of a club he may yet join in the summer.
Barca were forced last month to deny claims they had agreed a deal to sign the Frenchman, whose relentless run of form since the turn of the year now stands as the principal threat to them toasting a 25th La Liga triumph.
In January, Barcelona and Atletico were separated by 11 points at the top of the table but win this weekend, and Diego Simeone’s side will have cut that gap to two.
Barca’s slip at Las Palmas on Thursday, a day after Atletico claimed their eighth consecutive victory over Leganes, means the balance has tipped back towards the capital.
But, just as Griezmann has been the driving force behind their resurgence, with an outstanding 12 goals in nine games, the 26-year-old will be key again if Atletico are to inflict Barca’s first defeat this season.
He has never scored at the Camp Nou, a drought that extends to nine outings, but back-to-back hat-tricks, the second a quadruple, against Sevilla and Leganes this week will certainly have pricked the Catalans’ attention.
“He has played at this level in other seasons,” Simeone said after Wednesday´s win. “He is an extraordinary player — he already showed this in the past.”
It is no coincidence Griezmann’s surge has quickened since the arrival of Diego Costa, whose willingness to engage defenders in the grittier side of the game has allowed his partner the freedom to flourish.
But while Costa appears the perfect foil, Griezmann might glance across at his opponents on Sunday and wonder where and how he would fit in.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez admittedly have 61 years of age between them but also 59 goals this term. Neither look ready to make way for a younger model.
The 160 million-euro Philippe Coutinho, meanwhile, scored his first in the league against Girona last weekend while even the disorientated Ousmane Dembele is showing signs he is beginning to settle.
Given a draw would surely be enough to satisfy Barcelona, it would be a brave move from their coach Ernesto Valverde to field the full “Fabulous Four” this weekend.
They also have one less day than their opponents to recover.
“The match against Atletico comes fast and will be important for both teams,” Valverde said after the 1-1 draw against Las Palmas.
“But we are the leaders and we are looking forward to continuing being first.”
Real Madrid´s own title aspirations are long gone, with their focus firmly shifted to the Champions League and next week´s second-leg clash with Paris Saint-Germain.
Domestic fixtures have become something similar to European trials, with the likes of Gareth Bale, Marcos Asensio and Isco all missing the chance to push their case in Tuesday´s surprise defeat at Espanyol.
Zinedine Zidane’s treatment of Bale in particular, left out earlier this month against Leganes and then deployed as a centre forward in midweek, hardly seems to have smoothed the way for a return to form.
Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to be restored to the starting line-up at home to Getafe on Saturday. Marcelo is back in training but Luka Modric (thigh) and Toni Kroos (knee) are further away.
Real sit one point ahead of fourth-placed Valencia, who host Real Betis on Sunday.
Villarreal v Girona (1200), Sevilla v Athletic Bilbao (1515), Deportivo La Coruna v Eibar (1730), Leganes v Malaga (1730), Real Madrid v Getafe (1945)
Levante v Espanyol (1100), Barcelona v Atletico Madrid (1515), Real Sociedad v Alaves (1730), Valencia v Real Betis (1945)
Celta Vigo v Las Palmas (2000)