MADRID (AFP) – Atletico Madrid began the summer by losing six of their best players but are ending it with greater belief than ever they can beat Real Madrid and Barcelona to the La Liga title, thanks in part to the exhilarating form of new striker Joao Felix.
Diego Simeone was tasked with his biggest rebuild since taking charge in 2011 after an exodus that not only drained his team of talent, including star man Antoine Griezmann, but caused many to wonder if the team could ever be the same again.
They lost four defenders, with full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran going to Brazil with Flamengo and Sao Paulo, captain Diego Godin moving to Inter Milan, and young gem Lucas Hernandez snapped up by Bayern Munich.
They also lost their defensive midfielder Rodri to Manchester City after just a year at the club, while the spat between Atleti and Barca over Griezmann’s messy departure left a bad taste in the mouth.
Few would expect Griezmann and the EUR75 million euro Frenkie de Jong not to make Barca even stronger, an ominous prospect given they won La Liga by 11 points only three months ago, but Atletico look best-placed to capitalise should they falter.
Forward Felix is at the heart of the optimism following his arrival for EUR120 million, erasing the pain of the Frenchman’s exit even before a competitive ball has been kicked.
“Wherever you put him, he reads the game really well,” said Simeone. “The best thing about him though is that he wants to learn. When this is the case, adaptation is always quicker.”
Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi all appear excellent defensive additions while Marcos Llorente from Real Madrid should prove a shrewd replacement for silky Rodri.
Atletico finished 12 points ahead of Real last season and a series of bad summer displays from Zinedine Zidane’s side – including a 7-3 defeat to their Madrid rivals – inspire little confidence despite the arrival of Eden Hazard.