Griezmann and Co out to shed tag as nearly men

Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann (centre) has credited his manager Diego Simeone (left) for his growth as a footballer. The French international has 21 goals this season.
Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann (centre) has credited his manager Diego Simeone (left) for his growth as a footballer. The French international has 21 goals this season.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MADRID • Propelled by an on-fire Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid stand on the brink of a fourth consecutive Champions League quarter-final, determined to finally end their tag as Europe's nearly men.

They are the only club to ever lose three European Cup/Champions League finals without winning the trophy.

Griezmann has experienced that feeling more than most.

Last year, the Frenchman proved himself as one of world football's most deadly forwards, but also missed out in agonising fashion in the Champions League and Euro 2016 finals, as well as finishing third behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi for the Ballon d'Or.

Burdened by that disappointment and the physical and mental fatigue of carrying France to the final of Euro 2016 on home soil, Griezmann's form tailed off as he failed to score a league goal between October and January.

However, the new year has seen Griezmann revitalised, and as a consequence Atletico's form improve as well, with the 25-year-old scoring 12 of his 21 goals this season in 2017. He also netted six goals in his last seven games.

Once again under the tutelage of Diego Simeone, Atletico are coming good at the right time of the campaign to launch another title bid.

Bayer Leverkusen will need to launch a big comeback when they visit the Vicente Calderon today, needing to overcome a 4-2 first-leg defeat at home three weeks ago.

The esteem in which Griezmann holds Simeone was key to him remaining at the Calderon last summer, and why he says he will stay when Atletico move into the new 67,000-capacity Wanda Metropolitano next season.

This, despite rumours Manchester United are willing to pay the €100 million euro (S$150.57 million) release clause in his contract.

"Simeone is the one who has made me take the leap I needed. I was promising but in three years, he has helped me take the leap to in 2016 be among the three best players in the world," Griezmann told Television Espanola this week.

"To take that leap, Simeone is the best coach I could possibly have had. There is no reason to leave."

New Leverkusen coach Tayfun Korkut, appointed in place of Roger Schmidt last week, insists his team will not lose the second leg.

"We have seen in the last few days what can happen in football," he told Spanish newspaper Marca.

"We will not be beaten in Madrid, we will go and fight in the tie until the end. We know what result we need to reach the quarters."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ATLETICO V LEVERKUSEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Griezmann and Co out to shed tag as nearly men'. Print Edition | Subscribe