Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti labelled Vinicius Junior the most decisive player in the world this week, but on Saturday in LaLiga he faces another contender, Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann.
Although the French forward finished a runner-up at the World Cup and Atletico is struggling in fourth place, Griezmann is in sparkling form. Diego Simeone's team is four points clear of Real Betis in fifth and its only goal now is to secure Champions League qualification for next season. Atletico fans have looked on jealously over the past fortnight as European competition resumed without them. The team got eliminated in the group stage of this year's Champions League, finishing in last place in its group and failing to even drop into the Europa League. A win over Madrid would brighten the mood, but the Rojiblancos have not won in the league at the Santiago Bernabeu since 2016.
"We've got to win, whatever happens, and end our poor run at their ground," Griezmann told LaLiga's website. "We have our objective, and that is to win all our games and then see how that turns out. We've been working hard and heading in the right direction."
Griezmann joined Atletico after its 2014 title triumph and moved to Barcelona before the club won it again in 2020, meaning he has never won the league. With Atletico 18 points behind the leader Barcelona, that will not change this season, but against Madrid he could lay a decisive blow in favor of his former team-– one just as significant as anything he managed in a Barcelona shirt. The forward scored a brilliant solo goal last weekend to help Atletico earn a narrow 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.
"Griezmann is decisive for us," Simeone said. "When he's playing well, the team hits another level."
Griezmann has directly contributed to 45 percent of Atletico's league goals, with seven goals and seven assists, despite only playing 72 percent of the team's minutes this season. During the first few months of the campaign, he was only being used for short periods because of a purchase condition in his Barcelona loan contract which Atletico was trying to avoid fulfilling. Eventually, the club bought Griezmann outright at a discount and it has paid off handsomely, even though its season as a whole has been bitterly disappointing.
Madrid, by contrast, remain in the Champions League and winger Vinicius played a key role as he scored two goals in his team's 5-2 thrashing of Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday.
"Today, in my personal opinion, he is the most decisive player in world soccer," Ancelotti said midweek. "He doesn't stop, dribbling, assists, goals. Now he is the most decisive player. I hope he can continue like that."
The clash with Atletico brings back bad recent memories for Vinicius, after an effigy of the Brazilian winger was hung from a bridge outside Madrid's training ground before the two teams clashed in the Copa del Rey in January. Madrid won that game 3-1, with Vinicius scoring in extra-time to seal the victory.
Los Blancos also beat Atletico 2-1 in La Liga in September, a clash marred by racist chants aimed at Vinicius outside the Metropolitano. The forward will be without fellow forward Rodrygo, and David Alaba is also injured for Madrid, while Atletico will be missing midfielder Rodrigo de Paul. All eyes will be on Vinicius and Griezmann as the two skillful, creative forwards try to inspire their teams to derby victory.
Player to watch: Justin Kluivert
The Valencia forward, son of former Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert, was bright even as Los Che fell to a 1-0 defeat by Getafe on Monday. The club will need his firepower against Real Sociedad on Saturday to start climbing away from the relegation zone.
Saturday: Espanyol vs Real Mallorca, Cadiz vs Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid, Valencia vs Real Sociedad
Sunday: Athletic Bilbao vs Girona, Celta Vigo vs Real Valladolid, Almeria vs Barcelona, Sevilla vs Osasuna
Monday: Villarreal vs Getafe
© Agence France-Presse