Trading places: Antoine Griezmann and Joao Felix thriving at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona

French forward edging closer to becoming Atletico's all-time record goalscorer while Barca's Portuguese playmaker Felix motivated to face his former boss Simeone

Antoine Griezmann kisses the Atletico Madrid badge after scoring against RCD Mallorca. Reuters
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A hat-trick would do it, carry Antoine Griezmann into immortality as the greatest goalscorer in the history of Atletico Madrid. The three goals he needs, on current form, will come soon enough. But it would be a piquant touch if he edged closer to the landmark on Sunday, at Barcelona, the club who interrupted his long romance with Atletico.

Griezmann is not a prolific scorer of hat-tricks, although he did register his fourth in Atletico colours in October at Celta Vigo, part of the golden sequence of performances that, when it isn’t featuring goals, is showing off the ever broader repertoire of a player who, at 32, appears more in command of his game than ever. He’s the forward who has evolved into an accomplished midfielder when the circumstances demand; in his delivery of passes in open play or from a dead ball, there is ever greater finesse and variety.

Most of all, Griezmann looks utterly at one with his environment, and with the plans and strategies of his boss. He and Diego Simeone, Atletico’s head coach, go back a long way. When Griezmann lines up against Barcelona, in La Liga’s heavyweight clash of the weekend, he will be doing so for the 360th time under the long-serving Simeone.

Their time together could have stretched even longer, Griezmann long ago overtaken Luis Aragones’s record of 173 Atletico goals, a landmark set almost 50 years ago. But in 2018, four years after moving to Madrid from Real Sociedad, the France international became restless. He wanted to be somewhere with a better guarantee of trophies. He wondered if a different club, and a different coach, might provide a better platform for his creativity than the Atletico of Simeone, with its basic template of dogged defence and counter-attack.

Griezmann flirted very publicly with a transfer to Barcelona, then stepped back from a move Barca had pushed for and then, having angered supporters and executives of both clubs with his prevarications, went through with the transfer a year later. Barca paid over €100m for Griezmann.

The move was not a great success, but the impulse that drove it has since been revisited by another €100m footballer, many years younger than Griezmann but with some of the same skill-set.

Joao Felix has spent much of the last 12 months airing his dissatisfaction with the way Simeone likes the game to be played, and their breach had seismic repercussions. Felix, signed from Benfica as a 19-year-old on the back of the fees Atletico received from Barcelona for Griezmann in 2019, is the most expensive player to join Atletico. Given his qualities, a playmaker of vision and delicate touch, his arrival pointed towards a more aesthetic football than the traditional Simeone stereotype. But after three years, Felix was unpersuaded: Atletico, as he put it in one interview, favour the football of “endurance, soaking up pressure.”

In January, Felix moved, on loan, to Chelsea in search of something better suited to his style. He found instead a club in haphazard transition. In August, still an Atletico property, he joined Barca on loan. So far, so promising. He scored on his home debut; three nights ago, he tucked in the goal that secured Barcelona’s leadership of their Champions League group.

There are signs of a growing complicity with Barca head coach, Xavi. Felix is at the front of the long queue for a starting place in Barcelona’s front three. Shortly before he completed Barca’s comeback from a goal behind against Porto on Tuesday, coach and player were spotted conferring on the touchline during a break in play, Xavi saying: “This is your moment”. When Felix promptly thudded a drive off the Porto crossbar and later netted the winning goal, the words looked prophetic, or at least inspiring.

Back in 2019, Griezmann also made a decent start to his Barca career. Like Felix, he scored on his home debut. But two years later, he was back at Atletico, initially on loan, and then, for a fraction of the cost of what Barcelona paid for him, permanently. The move to Catalonia had not worked out for the player or for Barca.

There was scepticism among Atletico fans about Griezmann’s return, a lingering sense of betrayal. But to listen to Simeone now is to recognise all is forgiven. Griezmann, with 13 goals already this season, is soaring. “Not everybody felt OK about him coming back,” Simeone recalled recently, “but I was convinced Griezmann was born to play for Atletico. I feel lucky to be the coach of a player like him.”

Up against Barca, with whom Atletico are tied on points but just ahead, in third spot, on goal difference, this is Griezmann’s moment. But Joao Felix, up against Diego Simeone and Atletico for the first time, has every motivation to turn it into his.

Updated: December 02, 2023, 9:57 AM