Atletico Madrid re-shape forward line as Mario Mandzukic moves on
Two minutes into the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 22 and it seemed the Vicente Calderon had a new hero. Mario Mandzukic demonstrated clever movement to latch onto an Antoine Griezmann flick-on before hammering the ball past a hapless Iker Casillas to seal a 2-1 aggregate triumph for Atletico Madrid.
Having lost Diego Costa to Chelsea, many thought Diego Simeone had pulled off quite the coup in convincing the big Croat to leave Bayern Munich for the Spanish capital's second side.
Yet just 11 months on, the 29-year-old has inked a four-year deal with Italian champions Juventus worth €19 million. After making such a dramatic start to life on the banks of the River Manzanares, Mandzukic did not find the back of the net during his final three months at the club and reportedly fell out with Simeone over a questionable attitude. So where exactly did it all go wrong for the man fans came to know as Mad Mario?
The moment itself is not immediately discernable, and the slump is all the more remarkable given how well the former Wolfsburg man acquitted himself to life in Spain.
He opened his account in the second game of the season, before earning the respect of Europe as he played on with a broken nose against Olympiakos in the Champions League group stages, scoring a thumping header despite his facial injury. After returning to action sporting a facemask, the Croatia international went from strength the strength, bagging 14 goals in all competitions before the winter break -- including a sensational hat trick against Olympiakos in the return group stage game at the Calderon.
He restarted well enough after Christmas, too. Seemingly linking up well alongside Griezmann, he hit four league goals in January, while his finest hour in Rojiblanco was yet to come.
Los Colchoneros' emphatic 4-0 victory over local rivals Real Madrid in the second league derby had many heroes, but Mandzukic put in one of the great centre-forward displays seen in La Liga in recent years. Bullying the Merengues' back line, he was simply unplayable, contributing to everything that was good about his side before putting the icing on the cake with a well-taken fourth.
From that pinnacle, however, it was all downhill. Just one goal followed -- two weeks later at home to Almeria from the penalty spot on Feb. 21 -- before his falling out with Simeone in March. As strike partner Griezmann set new goal-scoring heights, the former Bayern striker looked like he was unable to hit the proverbial barn door.
Still favoured by the coach for the big Champions League encounters against Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid -- largely because of a lack of alternatives -- it was obvious that the bond between manager and coach had been severed beyond repair. His season finished with a whimper as Simeone publicly announced he was injured and his last game came as a substitute on the penultimate day of the season as Barcelona secured the league title in Atleti's back yard.
It is a shame, given the striker's undoubted qualities. While not possessing the genuine pace of a Costa or Sergio Aguero, his penalty box instincts are there for all to see. Likewise, his ability to wind up defenders was straight out of the Costa playbook.
He caused both Sergio Ramos and Pepe's blood to boil during most of the many Madrid derbies last year, endearing him to then crowd no end. The roar generated by the Calderon faithful when he ripped off his protective facemask upon making his return from injury against Juventus gave an indication of just how much his efforts were appreciated.
While liked by the crowd, there was a sense that Mandzukic did, on the odd occasion, not give his all for the side. His penchant to try back-heels and flicks when a simple pass would do often brought about groans, and his knack of picking up silly yellow cards did not help matters. While Atleti implemented a new, more direct style at the start of the season, the player flourished. However, toward the business end, with Griezmann taking on a more prominent role and the side looking to get in behind defences, the player's qualities were nullified.
Perhaps this is why he fell out with Simeone, or maybe as the boss said, he just simply did not have the right attitude. He brought the Calderon a lot of good memories, however there will not be the most profound feeling of loss in the knowledge that he has left the club.
No matter the cause, what is done is done and Mario Mandzukic now no longer plays for Atletico Madrid. Despite not scoring for three months and all his other troubles, the forward still finished the season with 21 goals in all competitions, a number that has helped to ensure Atletico only made the smallest of losses on him.
With Simeone now possessing more say over the club's dealings in the market, the fans will trust that he has made the right decision in offloading Mandzukic. Simeone is king at Atleti and he looks to have wasted no time whatsoever in sorting out a new striker, with AS confirming the €35 million arrival of Jackson Martinez to spearhead Simeone's new-look front line.
The Colombian possesses the same kind of power as Mandzukic, while past performances show that he is also more capable of playing the pressing game demanded by Simeone from his forward players. With Luciano Vietto set to be the next one through the door, the summer is looking very promising indeed for Atletico Madrid.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.