Most of Atletico Madrid’s hopes of beating crosstown rival Real Madrid will ride on the shoulders of Antoine Griezmann.
The 26-year-old France forward, who leads Atletico with 22 goals in all competitions this season, will be the focus of the team’s attack on Saturday as it tries to derail Madrid’s march toward the Spanish league title. And with strike partner Kevin Gameiro out with a left-leg injury, the burden will be even greater.
“(Griezmann) is one of the players who gives us life,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said Friday. “He has grown enormously because he has wanted to improve, to mature from a youth and be a man on the field. He is on track to consistently be one of the best in the world. We hope and need Antoine to be at his best for the end of the season.”
For Griezmann, a win that would help Atletico strengthen its hold on third place and an automatic Champions League berth is a matter of collective faith.
“I always believe in my team and my teammates. That’s why I feel like we are favored,” the forward said.
Griezmann has proven to be just what Atletico hoped for when it secured his transfer from Real Sociedad in 2014; he has blossomed into one of the league’s most creative and talented scorers with expert vision, a strong shot from distance, and speed. He scored 25 goals in his first season and increased that to 30 last time.
Griezmann’s goal last February extended Atletico’s winning streak at Real Madrid’s stadium in league play to three consecutive seasons. He also contributed to its 4-0 rout of Madrid at home in the 2014-15 season.
However, when on club soccer’s biggest stage, Griezmann missed a penalty during regulation in last season’s Champions League final that Real Madrid went on to win in a shootout.
While Atletico still has one of the best defenses in Europe, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zindane applauded its improvements in attack under Simeone, and Griezmann.
“Everyone talks about how well they defend. They do defend well, but not only that,” Zidane said. “Since Simeone arrived they have gotten better and play better football. Their midfielders, their backs ... they all know how to play.”
Cristiano Ronaldo holds the record for goals in the Madrid derby with 18 following his hat trick in November to earn a 3-0 victory for Real Madrid at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.
“That was a great match by Madrid,” Griezmann said about their first league showdown this season. “They hurt us a lot, but now it is another story. We are playing well and hopefully can do things better.”
Now, 10 points adrift of Real Madrid and eight behind second-place Barcelona, Atletico’s chances of winning a trophy again rest in the European Cup, where it is set to play Leicester in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Griezmann said that there would be no better way to prepare for the English team’s visit on Wednesday than a win over Real Madrid.
“We know that, beyond the points in play and the Champions League, we have to win this match for our fans,” Griezmann said. “I am sure that if we win it will give us even more confidence and help us for what lies ahead.”