All eyes on Griezmann as Atletico Madrid face must-win vs. Sociedad
Another Derbi Madrileno at the Santiago Bernabeu, another victory for Atletico Madrid.
It never used to be like this. In fact it almost always, without fail, between 1999 and 2013 ended in defeat. But times have changed in the Spanish capital under Diego Simeone.
Antoine Griezmann's second-half strike on Saturday gave Atleti their third consecutive La Liga derby win in their arch-rival's back yard. It did not possess the same kind of euphoria as the previous two victories given the title is -- barring a miracle -- Barcelona's. But in a way, whisper it quietly, it felt like a routine win; one the side expected.
Los Rojiblancos never truly seemed in danger of conceding as Jan Oblak racked up his 17th clean sheet in 26 league matches this term. And once Griezmann put Simeone's men ahead, it never seemed in doubt.
For the Frenchman the goal marked the end of barren scoring run. Granted, given Fernando Torres and Luciano Vietto's struggles finding the back of the net, Griezmann's five games was a drop in the ocean. But with the side relying so much on his output this year, it seemed an eternity.
For the No. 7, it will have also been nice to get another monkey off his back and answer a number of critics, including this author, who questioned his performances and offerings in big games for the club.
While one goal against a below par Madrid side does not equate to a transformation into a big-game player, it certainly is a start and one he must build upon.
His all-around performance was outstanding. And he was by a distance the best player on the pitch, forcing Keylor Navas into a top-drawer save before weaving his way through a number of challenges and planting his finish into the bottom corner to silence the Bernabeu.
It was his 20th goal in all competitions this season -- a figure he has not hit for the past three campaigns -- and he must use it as a catalyst to go on and fire the side to a second-place finish in La Liga and help them push for Champions League glory. His manager certainly feels that he is the most important player at the club right now.
"We depend on Griezmann like Barca depend on Messi, Suarez and Neymar," Simeone said in his prematch press conference, highlighting just how vital he is to the Vicente Calderon outfit. "Like Madrid with Cristiano [Ronaldo], [Aritz] Aduriz with Athletic and [Kevin] Gameiro at Sevilla. They're important players and us coaches try to keep them firing. This is important for the team."
The quest for second place (Atletico currently have a four point gap over third placed Real Madrid) starts this midweek with the visit of Griezmann's former club Real Sociedad.
The Basque outfit have enjoyed a new lease of life since David Moyes' departure and are comfortably in mid-table and, unbeaten in their last five, will provide stern opposition for Atleti.
Having said that, it is a game that Los Colchoneros should, or rather must, win. In their bid to remarkably finish above Real Madrid for the second time in three seasons it is games such as Tuesday's encounter that should be seen as a home banker. A straightforward three points that will help, temporarily at least, increase the gap between the two Madrid outfits to seven points and still ensure the pressure is on Barcelona who would be five points better off, at least until they play on Thursday.
Simeone remains without Yannick Carrasco, Tiago and Stefan Savic -- all of whom are injured -- and has a big decision to make about a number of first XI players with this weekend's trip to Valencia on the horizon.
Diego Godin, Filipe Luis, Augusto Fernandez, Gabi and Antoine Griezmann are all just one booking away from missing the tie at the Mestalla. Despite Valencia's lowly league position, they have managed credible draws against both Madrid and Barca at their home ground and often turn it on for the big sides.
Simeone will not want to run the risk of potentially missing five pivotal players for the game and thus it would not be a huge surprise to see some rotation, especially in midfield. While the likes of Filipe and especially Godin might well be hooked early if the game is sewn up in order to protect them.
One man who Simone cannot afford to do without, however, is Griezmann. The France forward will almost certainly play, but will need to be on his best behaviour in order to come through the game unscathed and ready to help the club's push for a second place finish in addition to the local bragging rights.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.